Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Time and man had a very early encounter back in 2000 B.C., the age of sundials; on to the clepsydra, or water clock, also known in antiquity; and to the sand glass which has lasted to our own time. From very recent shipwreck studies and other excavations, we now know that the very first people who had the idea of measuring time by a mechanism composed of wheels and weights was the Greeks. The “Antikythera Mechanism” (see is believed to be the first complex Time-Keeping device known to man that used extensive combinations of wheels, 30+ gears, plates etc and had the capability of tracking and predicting the positions of the stars, moon and sun at all time with remarkable accuracy. The Antikythera Mechanism is regarded as the first computer ever, made ca 150 BC, but unparalleled until the 18thC.

In more recent times, a crude clock is said to have been invented by Pope Sylvester II in 996. Most known clocks for public buildings are believed to have been made at least as early as 1286, when one was put up on St. Paul's in London.

It was not until the invention of the mainspring about 1500 in Nuremberg that easily portable clocks and watches became possible. At first more attention seems to have been paid to the cases than to the works themselves, an emphasis which evidently continued strong, judging from the fantastic array of cases produced by European clockmakers through the eighteenth century. The introduction of the pendulum in the mid-1600's opened new possibilities for accuracy, aided by the use of a minute hand in addition to the hour hand. By that time the groundwork had been laid. The richness of the superstructure is more than hinted at in this exhibition.

The “Banjo” Clock probably dates from about 1800. It was in 1801 that Simon Willard applied for and received patent for his "improved timepiece." In its simplicity, yet grace and adequacy of design, it is little short of a masterpiece. A circular hood just suffices to enclose the working mechanism, the tapered waist expands in conformity to the shape of the lead weight whose slow descent occupies just eight days. The rectangular box at the bottom balances the hood and gives stability to the whole. Usually two gracefully curving volutes, or side arms, of pierced brass reach from basebox to hood, which last, in turn, is crowned with a device of some kind - an acorn of gilded wood; an eagle, either of wood or of brass; an urn or a spike of cast brass. The dials were invariably painted on iron blanks. The cases of the clocks were beautifully made of selected mahogany. Even the backboards' are of mahogany.

Simon Willard was particularly partial to inlaid frames. His typical "banjo" type shows the extreme edge of the frame inlaid with cross-banded mahogany and satinwood. The center panel is fastened to the wood case by means of brass screws passing through from the outside of the frame on both sides of the case. Sometimes four screws occur - two at the top and two at the bottom of the panel. At other times the panel is held in place by two screws, only, in the center of the frame. In the carved and gilded center panels of his presentation clocks, Willard does away with visible screws, securing his center panel by means of a top flange that passes under the dial, and at the bottom by two screws concealed by the door of the bottom box.

The movements of these clocks were made from heavy cast brass, which was hardened by hammering and finished by filing. Today rolled brass is used for clock movements. The hands - usually of the arrow type for the "banjo" clocks - were filed by hand from pieces of steel. The work was begun by apprentices, carried by them as far as their abilities permitted, and then finished by a master workman.

In the majority of his "improved timepieces," Simon Willard used the dead-beat escapement, first devised by George Graham (1673-1751) of England. While more difficult to construct than the recoil escapement, the dead beat gives somewhat greater accuracy. It is the steadiness of the dead-beat escapement that makes it the choice in jewelers' regulators today. Willard gave his clockworks further stability by utilizing the so-called "T-bridge," a pendulum support on two pivots, which prevented any danger of pendulum wobbling. The movements were fastened within their cases by means of two long bolts placed diagonally across the plates and passing through from the front to the back plate and into the back of the case itself.

The more we study the little details, the niceties of workmanship, in every part of movements and cases, the more we realize the thought and care which Willard bestowed upon making his "improved timepiece" a success.