Throughout the millenniums various groups of people have developed ways in which to record time. The Sumerians and the Egyptians used sundials, although the telling of time on cloudy days and at night was a bit of a challenge. In order to keep track of time when no sunlight was available, waterclocks were developed in Greece. These were utilized from approximately 2000BC to 50AD. The clock we are familiar with today evolved in the Far East and Europe from approximately 100AD to 1600AD.
Early inventors struggled with the dilemma of finding a reliable power source. The sun, water and sand power sources proved to be somewhat unreliable. A power source was needed that could consistantly and reliably turn a system of gears that would accurately move the hands of the clock. The speed of the time keeping would be controlled by a toothed escapement wheel that would have an arresting mechanism called the verge that would precisely interrupt the movement of the escapement wheel to allow for accurate time keeping. The verge rocks back and forth allowing the teeth on the wheel to escape one at a time, thus the wheel with the teeth and controlled by the verge became known as the escapement. A major breakthrough came in the early 1500's when Peter Henlein perfected the ability to us a would spring as a power source. This development was followed in 1656 with the creation of the pendulum for more accurate time keeping by Christian Huygens. Although Galileo is credited with the original design, Huygens created the balance wheel and spring assembly for proper time keeping. His invention is similar to what we see in mechanical watched today.
The size of time pieces has changed greatly over the past centuries. Many of the early clocks were large due to the need to house the large mechanisms needed to operate the clock and associated chiming or musical components. Peter Henlein developed a spring powered clock that allowed for a reduction in the size of the clock works. Spring powered movements could be made for mantle or table clock size cases. Mr. Henlein was indeed an innovator and went so far as to develop the first portable watch; it was six inches high. (Hardly what we would use today as a wrist or pocket watch)
The development of the long pendulum movement began a new era in clock making and to ushered in more accurate time keeping. Not only was time keeping revolutionized, but also the furniture business, as now a much larger case was needed to house the new and stylish long pendulum clocks.
The golden age of development of English tall case clocks was from circa 1660 to 1730. The first tall case or long case clocks were commissioned by kings, their queens and nobles. Early clock cases were constructed using classic proportions from Greek Architecture and the then popular aesthetics. These early clocks were characteristically narrow wasted with a portico style bonnet that covered the movement and dial. A fixed viewing glass necessitated the removal of the bonnet to wind the clock and set the time. Many of these early clocks were serviced weekly by the local clock smith with the clocks owner never touching the time piece. Any problems were resolved by the clock smith and he was paid each week for his services. Eventually cabinet and clock makers worked together to develop ways to bring the price of these clocks down. The reduced priced increased demand and this greater demand was of course met with increased production of tall case clocks.
Early American tall case clock construction was based on the English tradition. Having limited or no trained clock makers in the colonies, the first available tall case clocks were imported from England. The first tall case clocks made in the colonies were copies of these English originals. These English pieces were manufactured to the then popular Baroque style and this caused problems with the colonial market. Houses in the colonies had lower ceilings that those in England requiring the new clock owners to “modify” the cases to fit the home. (In this case modification could mean cutting off the bracket feet or removing the crown on the bonnet. This is horrifying news to an antiques purist such as myself) Eventually only the movements were imported from England thus requiring a skilled craftsman to construct a case to house this mechanism. New York, New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were the colonial clock making centers. Benjamin Chandlee from Philadelphia took the lead and developed an aesthetically pleasing proportioned case the was under seven feet in height for the homes in the colonies and their lower ceilings.
Early American made clocks were constructed using hand tools and took months of work. Machinery that would have aided and simplified the colonial manufacture was strictly prohibited to be exported from England by Kings decree. Thus tall case clocks were found in only the most well to do homes in the colonies and were a symbol of the owners socio-economic status in the community