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The History and Evolution of Wall Clocks

Collage photo of different classic wall clocks.

Humans have been keeping track of time for millennia, and the ways in which we tell time have grown more and more sophisticated throughout history. From depending on the natural elements to keep time, to measuring billions of atomic vibrations, how we tell time has evolved in accuracy and appearance.

From sundials to grandfather clocks, let’s discuss how modern wall clocks came to be, and their many iterations over time.

How did we tell time before clocks?

Ancient stone Greek sundial

Before modern clocks, humans existing in ancient civilizations predominantly had to depend on natural elements to tell time. These elements of time telling included the sun, the moon, the stars, and on a longer scale seasons. The earliest clocks were shadow clocks invented by the Egyptians.

The Egyptians used Obelisks, constructed around 3,500 B.C.[4] to tell time based on the shadow that the sun cast on the ground beneath them. They also used sundials, which were later adopted by the Greeks. The earliest known sundial was discovered in Egypt and dates back to approximately 1,500 B.C.[4].

The sundial similarly measured time through the path of shadows created by the sun. There were two main flaws of shadow clocks: one; they were rendered practically useless at night or on overcast days. Two; they were unable to be kept in the home. The Egyptians were able to tell time at night based on other celestial bodies, like the path of star constellation, and the moon, however, these were not always completely accurate.

These early methods of time telling still were amazing examples of the ingenuity and prevalence of mathematical achievements at the time.  A later invention sought to provide more accuracy, usability day and night, and the ability to exist in the home; the water clock, or the Clepsydra[1].

Originally invented by the Egyptians in about 1400 B.C.[1] the Clepsydra was later adapted by the Greeks to include alarm clock systems. A water clock consists of “two containers of water, one higher than the other. Water traveled from the higher container to the lower container through a tube connecting the containers.

The containers had marks showing the water level, and the marks told the time”[1]. These water clocks sometimes included a stick that would rise with the water to turn the hands on an attached clock face. In approximately 250 BC[4] the greeks included a mechanism in which the water would rise and “eventually hit a mechanical bird that triggered an alarming whistle”[4].  

Do you think the Greeks wanted to hit snooze on these early alarm clocks too? The water clock however also had inaccuracies due to the inconsistencies of water flow based on temperature and volume.

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Other forms of early timekeeping include hourglasses and candles. Candle clocks were recorded as early as 520 A.D. China [4]. The candle clocks would be marked with a notch for each hour, and the melting candle would measure the hours passed as it burned.

Sand hourglasses were unassumingly accurate due to the consistency in the flowing of sand grains as opposed to water. Starting around the 15th-century hourglasses were commonly used at sea as a means for sailors to tell time. Hourglasses are an ancient but timeless invention, you might even have one in your kitchen today. 

The first mechanical clocks

The earliest mechanical clocks in Europe were invented by Christian monks. An important role of monks was to call others to prayer, and therefore timekeeping was essential. The first known mechanical clock in Europe was built in 996 by a monk who would later become Pope Sylvester II[4].

Early mechanical used slowly falling weights to turn the clock hands. The weights would have to fall a long height and therefore were built in large towers. Two examples of these early clocks still stand, in England from 1386, and France from 1389[2].

Because of the massive scale of clock towers, they would be located predominantly in monasteries or town squares. It would still be several decades until clocks would begin to enter the home. 

Wooden wall mounted pendulum clock

The next advancement the clock would experience was through the use of the pendulum. It was none other than Galileo Galilei who initially discovered the precise timekeeping ability of pendulums. Galileo experimented extensively trying to create a clock that used the pendulum but was unsuccessful.

Galileo’s research however would eventually influence Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens working pendulum clock in 1656[3]. Huygens clock was initially called a ‘long case clock’ or ‘wags-on-the-wall’, as the swinging pendulum appeared to wag its tail like a dog. These clocks were initially mounted on the wall with the pendulums swinging below.

They would eventually be framed with wood, and occasionally with glass panels to reveal the working mechanics of the innovative pendulum technology. The pendulums would grow in length over the 17th century to attempt better accuracy, with English clockmaker William Clement creating the ‘Royal Pendulum’ standing in total about seven feet tall[3].

Because of the scale of these pendulum clocks, they would be removed from the wall, and cased in wood, resulting in what we know today as a grandfather clock

black and white picture of woman standing next to grandfather clock

Grandfather clocks and other pendulum clocks were very expensive from the 17th century to mid 18th century and were reserved for royals and the highest of society. In time with industrialization, clocks were more easily manufactured and became more accessible for middle-class homes in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and immigration brought these clocks to the Americas.

Throughout the 19th century, the pendulum wall clock and floor clock or grandfather clock would change in design, bringing about the cuckoo clock, and mantle clocks, but the timekeeping mechanism would remain until a new invention in 1927 changed the way we tell time forever. 

The Quartz clock

Canadian telecommunications engineer Warren Marrison[4] discovered that the crystal quartz had a consistent vibration when connected to an electrical circuit. Because of this discovery, he invented the first quartz clock, which became the most ubiquitous wall clock until the battery-operated or digital clock in later decades.

While the pendulum clock counts each swing of the pendulum as a second, the quartz clock measures the vibrations of the crystal to count to a second. The quartz clock was much more accurate and could be made more streamlined than earlier mechanical clocks. They were also more accessible and affordable and wall clocks began popping up in every household in a number of different styles.

The quartz clock set the highest standard of accuracy until the invention of the atomic clock which took timekeeping to a microscopic level. 

The Atomic clock

Even more accurate than the quartz is the atomic clock. Measuring the vibrations of atoms to count time rather than quartz, the atomic clock is so accurate it has an “error of only 1 second in up to 100 million years”[5]. The atomic clock was invented in 1949[6] and there are now 400 atomic clocks around the world.

Atomic clocks are mainly used for scientific purposes, like GPS and satellites, rather than daily time telling. Due to the limited number of atomic clocks, and the fact that they take up almost an entire room, it might be a while before you can get one on your mantel. 

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Battery-operated and modern clocks

Today, many wall clocks are battery-operated. Battery-operated clocks and watches are generally more cost-effective than quartz, however, quartz clocks are still more accurate at timekeeping. Battery-operated clocks and watches have an inaccuracy of about 1 minute per year.

If you’re willing to spare a minute to save some cash, then a battery-operated clock is right for you. Both quartz and battery-operated clocks can be found in a variety of designs to accommodate the style of any interior. 

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With the turn towards digital timekeeping through the use of phones and smartwatches, wall clocks seem to be falling out of fashion. We believe the wall clock should be given the time of day (while also telling you the time of day). The wall clock isn’t only convenient, it also doubles as decor.

The wall clock has a sense of permanence; it is always in the same place, it cannot be lost, and it doesn’t have to be charged. It also prevents you from unnecessarily glancing at your phone and inviting unwanted distractions. We hope after reading the interesting history of clocks you’ll consider including this timeless piece of technology in your home.