Up until the 15th century, time was tracked primarily by sundials. One of the most important milestones of modern civilization was the advent of weight- and spring-driven mechanical clocks. These made it possible for people to improve their personal and collective efficiency by enabling them to coordinate their efforts with others. Clearly, the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the humble clock.
A brief history of clocks
The first mechanical clocks were mounted to buildings where the entire town could see them. Later, tall case clocks found their way into public buildings, and by the mid-1700s, the first clocks had made their way into private homes. By the late 1800s, virtually every home had a clock on the mantle.
The first clocks for home use were usually weight-driven and always had a pendulum. They were typically rather large and boxy, with housings made of wood. The oldest ones had wooden gears. By the mid-1800s, clocks began to have metal gears and their housings started to get smaller and more diverse in style. Most antique clocks found today were made in the Victorian era which (in U.S. terms) ran from the early 1800s through 1900. These popular clocks include the steeple, gingerbread, and cathedral clocks that we’ve all seen.
By the late 1800s, metal and marble housings became popular, and brass and glass variants such as spring-driven carriage clocks and crystal regulators emerged. By the 1900s, wall-mounted regulator (schoolhouse) clocks were popular, and were most frequently found in oak housings.
Clocks in the 20th century
By the 1920s, electric clocks came into being, and by the 1940s, very few mechanical clocks would ever be made again. Grandfather clocks have been made for hundreds of years, but the vast majority found today were made between 1880 and 1930.
While most clocks are worth less than their owners might hope they’d be (the servicing can cost more than the clock is worth), occasionally a good one surfaces, and the right clock can be worth a fortune in today’s market. Deep-pocketed collectors are looking for elaborate and fine housings, and rare or complicated movements with chimes, alarms, repeaters, moon-phase, power reserve, etc. Since many of these were made in Boston, you may have one, so consult with an antique clock dealer before selling yours for a song at a yard sale. If you think you have something really special, make sure you have a horologist, that is, someone who specializes in timepieces, weigh in.
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