CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Mechanical Marvels: The History of Motion Clocks

The Beginnings of Timekeeping

Humans have always possessed an intrinsic interest in measuring time. In fact, some of the earliest known examples of timekeeping devices appear prior to 1500 BCE, with the invention of sundials. As scientific interests advanced in ancient societies, so progressed the development of the timekeeping device. Beginning in Ancient Egypt, the study of the stars and celestial bodies spurred more systematic methods of keeping and telling time. Even as early as the third century BCE, proto-mechanical clocks began to be constructed. Still, these early devices could not consistently keep time, and it was not until the Middle Ages that dependable continuous timekeepers were invented. The conception and construction of the mechanical clock launched a series of developments that changed the course of timekeeping forever. Because of these early discoveries, we are now able to enjoy many fascinating iterations of the motion clock.
 

Early Developments

Even before the creation of the first proper mechanical clock in the Middle Ages, academics and inventors were already laying the groundwork for its manufacture. Until the invention of the fully-mechanical clock in the fourteenth century, clocks were primarily based on natural phenomena, such as cast shadows or falling sands. In the late 14th century, this changed. Dating to 1386, the Salisbury Cathedral Clock is perhaps the oldest extant and functioning mechanical clock in the world, though the first gear-operated clock is credited to Ibn Khalaf al Murādī in the 11th century. Its creation arguably spurred on the next generations’ fascination with timekeeping devices, and it helped to integrate clocks into the public sphere.
 
Salisbury Cathedral Clock, circa 1386, Salisbury, England

Salisbury Cathedral Clock, circa 1386, Salisbury, England
 

The Rise of Precision Timekeeping

Thanks to earlier advances in physics by Galileo Galilei and Leonardo da Vinci, 17th-century inventors discovered that clocks could be regulated by harmonic oscillators, leading to a boom in their production. With this finding came the production of pendulum clocks, which were some of the first motion clocks, the first of which was created by Christiaan Huygens in 1656. Now, instead of relying on external regulators, time could be kept within a closed system of action. These clocks maintained a regular rhythm by employing the laws of physics, which ensure that a swinging object will move at a constant speed and even distance from its center point. Simply put, a swinging pendulum could be used as a measurement of time.
 

The first pendulum clock. Invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1656.

 

The first pendulum clock. Invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1656.
 

From the 17th century on, pendulums were a mainstay of the timekeeping industry. A striking majority of the clocks produced during this period featured a pendulum device as a regulator. With this new development, it became easier to design and build clocks, which led to the proliferation of timekeepers into households. Pendulums also introduced a newfound accuracy to timekeeping devices, and as a result, clocks became more precise during this time.
 

French Pendulum Skeleton Clock, circa 1780

 

French Pendulum Skeleton Clock, circa 1780

 

 
This marvelous French Skeleton Clock is a particularly transparent example of the pendulum technology in action. While many clocks hide their mechanisms behind decorative elements, this piece reveals exactly how it works, placing its inner workings on display. The newfound pendulum technology is evident, as well as each gear and cog in action. This piece truly highlights the progressing technology in timekeeping devices.
 

French Figural Conical Pendulum Mystery Clock, circa 1890

 

French Figural Conical Pendulum Mystery Clock, circa 1890
 
This French figural mystery clock is another champion of pendulum technology, and it is an extraordinary amalgamation of complicated engineering and aesthetic design. Although it was produced several centuries later than the discovery of harmonic motion, the clock still functions on the same principles. The clock continually runs through harmonic motion, ensuring that the pendulum will continue to swing back and forth at a fixed rate.
 

Automaton Clocks

 

George III Adam and Eve Automaton Longcase Clock, circa 1780

 

George III Adam and Eve Automaton Longcase Clock, circa 1780

 

 

Once clocks had been primed for accuracy, clockmakers began experimenting with more elaborate displays and decorative elements. The first recorded mention of such a clock was in the first century CE when Roman engineer Vitruvius created an early alarm clock, which sounded trumpets or gongs in alert. This “automaton” clock, though relatively simplistic, was the beginning of a revolution in clockmaking.

 

From the Renaissance on, clocks were often produced as mere afterthoughts to their automata counterparts, a novelty which was becoming increasingly popular at this time. Automata are moving machines that follow a predetermined sequence of motions in perpetuity. Often, these machines appear to be alive, or animated, and they often feature anthropomorphic qualities. For instance, the cuckoo-clock is a widespread use of automata technology.

 

Using the already-honed precision of timekeeping devices, artisans and inventors could now combine the technology of accurate clocks and automata in order to create a spectacle of engineering. In fact, automaton clocks soon appeared in town squares across Europe, and they imposed a sense of structure across society. Both entertaining and utilitarian, these clocks are incredibly valued even today. This automaton clock features an exceptional Adam and Eve scene above the dial. In this Biblical scene, Eve offers Adam the forbidden apple, all while the golden serpent slithers around the tree’s trunk.

 

General Artigas Gunboat Industrial Clock, circa 1885

 

General Artigas Gunboat Industrial Clock, circa 1885

 

 

Over time, motion clocks became increasingly more sophisticated, and they often became more than mere devices for keeping time. Instead, these clocks often served as a form of entertainment or a display of wealth or prominence. For example, this French submarine clock exemplifies the multiplying complexity of timekeeping devices. Modeled in 1885, this unique clock imitates a Uruguayan gunboat, General Artigas. The gunboat was designed to sit partially submerged in water, with its rotating turret above the surface. The piece does not only serve as a timekeeping device. The clock’s face and a barometer are mounted into the turret, while a thermometer graces the central tower’s façade. Between 1860 and 1910, the “Golden Age of Automata” produced countless similar machines, many of which were clocks, making the intricacy of this piece is a product of its time.

 

Modern Timekeeping

 

Congreve Rolling Ball Clock, 20th century

 

Congreve Rolling Ball Clock, 20th century

 

 

While the electric clock was invented in the mid-19th century, later clockmakers continued to explore new ways to regulate time. In this unique design, Sir William Congreve forgoes the classical pendulum mechanism for a rolling steel ball, which also obeys Galileo’s law of inertia. Still, despite the difference in mechanism, the rolling ball clock builds upon the principles of physics demonstrated in the preceding pendulum clocks.

 

Overall, the technology behind the elaborate motion clocks that we enjoy today took centuries to achieve. From the initial fascination with the movement of the stars and planets in prehistoric times to the mathematical discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, the process of timekeeping has undoubtedly come a long way. Each advance made has owed to the efforts of those who came before. Although the aging technologies of pendulums are no longer integral to regulating time, they are still often included for their decorative value. Today, many homes use cuckoo or grandfather clocks as decorative timekeepers, even though time has long been digitized. Still, even with our modern advances, something about these tried-and-true methods fascinate us. The constancy of the ticking pendulum is somehow reassuring- a subtle reminder that time goes on, the world keeps spinning. No matter how far technology carries us, we will still be comforted by the mechanical beauty of these motion clocks.

 

You can explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of antique motion clocks on our website.

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