Many times I am asked who is the most influential person in early clock making. Hands down it would be Eli Terry. This week we take a quick look at the man and his clocks. Eli Terry went to work when he was only fourteen. By 1793, when he was twenty-one, he had spent seven years filling orders for his hang-up clocks. He also did repair work and sold eyeglasses on the side. Following the trail of tinware peddlers, Eli Terry, of South Windsor, built a route selling wooden clocks through New England and the Middle Atlantic states.But Terry had bigger dreams and he could see the day when peddlers - and individually assembled wooden clocks - would be obsolete. Around 1800, Eli learned about the Eli Whitney method of interchangeable parts. In his shop in Plymouth, Connecticut, Terry made a circular saw and other machines for cutting teeth in wooden clock wheels, which allowed him to produce an affordable clock for working families.. This was the first clock factory in America. At that time, simple wooden clockworks cost about $20. In addition to that, a cabinetmaker would charge $20 to make a case for the works. Thus a clock cost $40. Everyone needed a clock, but only one in 10 people could afford one. Terry wanted to turn out wooden clocks by the thousands, and he negotiated a contract that plunged him into mass production and united the clock industry with the emerging brass industry. He provided Waterbury salespeople 4,000 clock movements for $4 apiece, as many as the entire state had assembled in the previous decade.
After Eli Terry began to use the method of interchangeable parts, he could turn out ten or twenty clocks at one time. His neighbors laughed at such an idea and called him crazy. Still in seven more years he was able to make clocks for $4 each. Other clockmakers still charged from $15 to $25. After Terry improved his machine, he was able to make between ten and twelve thousand clocks each year. Silas Hoadley and Seth Thomas had worked for Eli. Seth Thomas was a carpenter who had helped build the Long Wharf in New Haven. he learned about mass production from Terry. Finally Seth went in business for himself. Chauncey Jerome was a blacksmith who had worked for Eli Terry, too. He had tried farming, and he had been a carpenter. He learned the new methods under Eli. Then he went in business with his brother. For a time he sold more clocks than anyone else and had shops in other states. Joseph Ives of Bristol invented the rolled brass clock. He began work on the kitchen clock which was to sell for a dollar. After completing that project, he sold the business and bought another factory site on the Naugatuck River. Soon five family members were running three Terry firms in Plymouth, turning out what was to be his masterpiece, a 30-hour, weight-driven shelf clock. The family lived well, although not ostentatiously. New England industrial magnates did not show off their wealth - at least, the Terrys didn't.In 1833, by age of 61, Eli Terry quit manufacturing, leaving three of his sons to carry on the family business. (All around him, families were coming off the farm to participate in family businesses.) After the death of his wife of 54 years, Eunice Warner Terry, he married widow Harriet Pond Peck, sired two more children after age 70, and lived another decade in a huge Gothic house in Terryville, which was named after his son.