You know the ones. Super tall, they still have a giant pendulum in them, probably only seen in horror movies or period pieces in media nowadays. Honestly, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen more grandfather clocks in movies or on TV than you have in real life–lest you inherited one or something. Maybe you even heard a certain song about grandfather clocks. But your grandparents probably don’t make tick-tock noises, so why are they called grandfather clocks?
It’s pretty common for grandfather clocks to become family heirlooms–so you’d think that this is where the term comes from. Except the grandfather clocks were invented in 1658 by Robert Hooke, and the name “grandfather clock” actually dates only back to 1876. Between the years 1658 and 1876 they were actually called longcase clocks–which is a term you’ll still sometimes see if you go antique shopping.
Pendulum clocks date back to the 1650s, and quickly became one of the most accurate solutions to timekeeping; before then it was a persistent issue for the second hand to not complete exactly one revolution every minute (60 seconds). Pendulums rely, very basically, on the fact that gravity acts the same on all things at any position. This means as the pendulum swings on its arc, it will always take the same amount of time to go from one side to the other. Friction will eventually slow the pendulum down, which is where escapement mechanisms come in–to assist in negating friction as much as possible.
Prior to the invention of the grandfather clock, pendulum-based clocks used a verge escapement mechanism, dating back to the 13th century. Pendulums using the verge escapement mechanism made wide arcs, ranging between 80 and 100 degrees. This is what makes the mechanism in a grandfather clock so special; it relies on an anchor escapement mechanism, which basically just pushes the pendulum a little bit when it hits the end of each swing. This shortened the arc of the pendulum swing to less than 10 degrees. What that means is pendulums could be longer and heavier, which made grandfather clocks run longer between windings.
The longer and heavier pendulums pushed grandfather clocks to their thin, tall frames–giving them the original name “longcase clock.”
America’s War Poet
On October 1, 1832 a boy named Henry Clay Work was born in Connecticut. Work was both a self-taught musician and lyricist, cutting his teeth on the American Civil War where he wrote some of his more famous pieces like Marching Through Georgia in 1865 and the pro-Union Kingdom Coming in 1862.
Despite becoming very popular during the American Civil War, Work found himself financially ruined by the 1870s. He kept writing songs, though. One of them was titled Grandfather’s Clock. It was published in, you guessed it, 1876.
The song’s speaker tells the story of their grandfather, who had a longcase clock brought into his home on the day of his birth. It ends with the death of the speaker’s grandfather, and the death of the clock as well. Their grandfather’s clock stopped ticking the moment its owner passed away.
Grandfather’s Clock was an instant hit, selling more than 800,000 copies and is generally credited as the reason the longcase clock was redubbed the grandfather clock.
Where Did Work Come Up With the Idea?
Sometimes when it comes to songs, we can’t really trace their inspiration. But allegedly there is a story of how Work came up with Grandfather’s Clock, a song that took him years to write. It’s said that Work was inspired by a longcase clock he saw in the George Hotel of Piercebridge, where he was enamored by its design. The clock was stuck at 11:05, and when Work asked why the clock was on prominent display but broken, hotel staffers told him the clock once belonged to the owners of the hotel. When they passed away, the clock was said to have stopped.
See if you know how to read a grandfather clock here.