The first mechanical clocks were made in about 1300. They were very large clocks often in church bell towers, These clocks were powered by falling weights and regulated by a “foliot”, which is a beam, pivoted at the centre and oscillating in the horizontal plane. These clocks had no minute hand and sometimes no face at all, being designed to strike a bell to indicate each hour. On some clocks the hour hand rotated in the way we are used to; on others the face rotated behind a stationery hour hand. They were manufactured from iron by blacksmiths.
Domestic versions of these iron clocks, called “Gothic clocks” , were produced in southern Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy. Their design was “skeletonised”, that is, there was no case. The mechanism was held up by four iron corner posts; there was a large bell at the top, often surmounted by a spire. These smaller clocks were manufactured by locksmiths or gunsmiths, rather than blacksmiths.
16th Century Clocks
It was not until about 1500 that the technology of metalwork had developed sufficiently to produce reliable spring for powering clocks. This had a great impact on clock design because they no longer had to be mounted high on a wall to provide distance for falling weights.
In about 1470, a new design of clocks was developed in which the mechanism was held between two plates, held apart by posts, rather than being supported by four corner posts. The significance of this change is that, if such clocks are made sufficiently small, they could be conveniently carried – and effectively become watches.
Around 1550, brass began to be used in clock manufacture. Generally brass was used for wheels and the harder iron or steel was used for the pinions on which the wheels rested. Since brass is cast, rather than hammered into shape like iron, clockmaking became a trade in its own right, rather than being an offshoot of iron smithing.
The two great centres for the development of clocks in the 16th century were the South German towns of Augsburg and Nuremberg. Augsburg specialised in clocks featuring an almost endless variety of automata while Nurembuerg became the first centre for the production of watches. All of the early watches that have survived are made of gilt bronze and almost all are cylindrical in shape; a few are spherical.
Clock making in Germany (and, indeed, all German industry) suffered badly as a result of the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648 and the centre of development for clocks moved to England.
The first product of the English clock making industry was the lantern clock. This was essentially a similar design to the Gothic clock with a “four poster” frame, but in lantern clocks were made mainly of brass rather than iron and the sides were covered with brass plates.