Ridgeway Hamilton Country, Westminster Chime clock
Ridgeway Hamilton Country, Westminster Chime, 1996

How did we get the name grandfather clock?

Most serious clock collectors and enthusiasts do not use the term grandfather clock when conversing with each other.

Firstly, most clock collectors and enthusiasts do not use the term grandfather clock when interacting with each other. I tend to use the word when conversing with family and friends because they  know exactly what I am talking about. The name first appeared in a song. In 1876, a song called My Grandfather’s Clock by Henry C. Work popularized the term grandfather clock and the name has stuck to this day. You can listen to Work’s famous song here.

Twiss Canadian tall clock circa 1890
Twiss Canadian tall clock circa 1890

Secondly, depending on where you are in the world this style of clock may have a different name. In England it would be referred to as a “long-case clock” while Americans prefer the term “tall clocks.” During the 20th and 21st centuries, some writers, including those writing for museum-sponsored publications, have combined regional names into one term,“tall case clock.” It is also referred to as a “floor clock”. These clocks have the following features in common. They are a tall, freestanding, made from a variety of wood, are time and strike though all modern clocks include a chime, weight-driven pendulum with the pendulum held inside the waist or throat of the case. The case often features elaborately carved ornamentation on the hood (or bonnet), which surrounds and frames the dial, or clock face.

RS pequegnat tall case clocks
A trio of Arthur Pequegnat tall clocks, circa 1912

Let’s go further back in history

Let’s go back in history. In the 16th and 17 century English lantern or chamber clocks were popular but they had serious limitations. Lantern clocks used a verge and foliot escapement and were notoriously inaccurate and unreliable, in fact, some had to be wound two and three time a day and were limited to a 12-15 hour run time. Many of the verge escapement with pendulums had a very wide pendulum swing.

It is widely accepted that the anchor escapement was invented by Robert Hook around 1657. An escapement is basically a speed regulator on a clock. At about the same time the pendulum was invented. The anchor escapement made for shorter pendulum swings, and heavier and longer pendulums. Since the pendulum had a lower beat a clock with an anchor escapement required less power and could run longer, up to 8 days. Only then did cabinetmakers get involved in building a case around the weights and pendulum. For an excellent article on the origin and evolution of the anchor escapement go here.

Hugh Gordon throat
Hugh Gordon long-case clock circa 1740

As long-case clocks became popular regional styles began to emerge.