Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Legend has grown around Simon Willard and his prowess as a clockmaker which has some improbable aspects. He has been pictured as a mechanical genius who spent sixty-odd years in doggedly demonstrating his skill at cutting the teeth on his clock wheels by hand and by eye, with the aid only of crude and primitive tools. While this concept of him has never been taken seriously by students of clockmaking, it has been widely publicized and should be corrected.

On the face of it, this picture of Willard is rather ridiculous. It has been estimated that he made 1200 tall-case clocks and over 4000 patent timepieces, in addition to many shelf, tower, and experimental clocks. Now, there are more than 900 teeth in the wheels of an eight-day tall-case clock, and 418 in each patent timepiece. If Willard had worked three hundred ten-hour days each year for sixty years - exclusively at cutting teeth - he would have had to cut, shape, and finish one tooth every 3 minutes in order to meet this output. And that without allowing any time for making and fitting the many parts which constitute a complete operating set of works!

A proper estimate of Willard's activities must be based on comparison with his contemporaries, for "he never took kindly to books" and few of his records have come to light. His contemporaries used fine tools and such labor-saving devices as then existed, and he must also have used them; otherwise he could not have held his position of leadership in this highly competitive field. Thomas Harland of Norwich, Connecticut, for example, was a maker who may be compared to Willard; his inventory (1807) shows two watch engines, one clock engine, and a respectable assortment of hand and machine tools.

Machine tools are as old in principle as the potter's wheel. The simpler ones (lathes, drills, and so on) perform their functions either by rotating, or by imparting a rotary movement to the material to be worked, while cutting surfaces reduce the material to a desired dimension. Machine tools have always been required in clockmaking, and eighteenth-century craftsmen had them. The essential difference between such tools then and now lies not in accuracy of performance but in motive power. In Willard's day they were operated by hand or foot, and in that sense, to be sure, the teeth of his clocks were cut by hand - but only in that sense.

Each farm and hamlet in the US had its smithy, at which a wondrous assortment of tools and implements were forged out. These were of such rugged character that many have survived, and this fact may account for the misbelief that all tools at that time were crude and primitive. Examination of the works of any eighteenth-century watch, however, will prove that fine tools were necessary to the fashioning of metals into such delicate tracery. By Willard's era tools had arrived at a state of efficiency which, in many instances, has not been surpassed to this day. In the classification of hand-driven machine tools belongs the clock wheel engine, which was invented about 1655 by Robert Hooke, was promptly adopted, and by 1700 was in general use. Probably the greatest labor-saving aid to clockmaking, this device did away with the necessity for filing out teeth by hand and enabled the craftsman to cut quickly and precisely on wheel blanks any required number of teeth. It was simple in construction, and was frequently made by the clockmaker for his own use. Hoopes in his ‘Connecticut Clockmakers of the Eighteenth Century’ cites inventories which indicate that it was generally employed in Connecticut in the 1700's, and illustrates an example used there about 1780.

On the basis, then, of contemporary practice and of Willard's own large production, it seems more than probable that he used the clock wheel engine. Proof that in fact he did was supplied by an experiment of Albert Weller, a Washington clockmaker. To test the legend of hand-cutting, Mr. Weller dismembered three authenticated Willard movements and placed the three great wheels one upon another. He found that one tooth on each wheel was cut with a slight inaccuracy, so that the teeth would line up only when the wheels were stacked in one position. This is evidence that all three wheels were cut on the same engine, and that one tooth mark on the index plate or guide disk of that engine was slightly untrue.

Clocks as dependable instruments came into being about 1650 with the use of the pendulum. This factor for accuracy gave impetus to the craft and greatly increased the demand for domestic clocks. Both customers and craftsmen vied with each other, with the result that clocks not only kept time and struck the hour but were equipped with apparatus to show the moon phases and to play tunes, with rocking ships and repeating mechanisms. The pioneering was done between 1650 and 1725 by Huygens, Fromanteel, Hooke, Tompion, Graham, and others. In that time the principles were explored and established which are still applicable to weight- driven clocks.

As the craft prospered, the guilds tightened their standards for admission. Some guild practices in England were transplanted here, notably the long, hard apprenticeship. "Sprightly," "willing," "alert," "healthy" boys were recruited as apprentices, and they were to discover that these attributes were only a few of the requirements for that course of instruction which lasted from five to seven years. The duty of an apprentice was to size and shape metals and to "rough in" parts. Journeymen did the hack work of the shop, and the master purchased supplies, marketed the finished product, and did the finer tasks of finishing and assembly. One who had served his apprenticeship and had interned as a journeyman came into the estate of a master with an awareness of debt to his craft and of his own stature in the craft - with a will to deliver nothing short of his best work.

Into such a heritage came Simon Willard at a time when experiments were under way for making wooden clockworks by water-powered machinery, to meet more cheaply the ever-increasing demand. At the beginning of his career these experiments did not materialize into a threat, but early in the nineteenth century they did. While the old clockmaking tradition to which Simon Willard had been born was being depreciated by advocates of wooden works, he kept it alive for two generations by his own practice and by his influence on the craft.

In versatility Willard stands alone in the history of clockmaking. He advertised the making of no less than fifteen different clocks and timepieces, and even offered variants of some of these. They ranged all the way from his patent timepiece to a four-dial tower clock and an "Astronomical Time Keeper" of truly astronomic capabilities. This instrument is described in an advertisement which appeared in Thomas' Massachusetts Spy on March 11, 1784. In the same advertisement Willard offers his "new invented Roasting Jack" which is not described as a clockwork jack.

Full recognition was accorded during his career. He, of all clockmakers of his time, was commissioned to make the clocks for the United States Capitol. The Senate clock was ordered in 1801, and is believed to have been destroyed by fire when the British burned the Capitol in 1814. The Supreme Court clock was ordered in 1837, and in that year Willard went to Washington and installed it. It is still in service. Within recent years it was moved from the Capitol to the new Supreme Court building, where it hangs in an office of the Chief Clerk. The pendulum is inscribed: MADE BY / SIMON WILLARD / AT AGE OF 85 YEARS/ BOSTON, JULY 1837 / BORN 1752. This inscription was copied when the clock was rehung in its present location and cannot be verified without dismantling the clock. Though Willard would have been eighty-five in July 1837 if he had been born April 3, 1752, this does not agree with the family record which gives April 3, 1753, as the date of his birth.

Another clock in the Capitol which is also still in service was installed in the House of Representatives (now Statuary Hall) in a marble chariot executed by Carlo Franzoni in 1819. A plate across the back of the works is engraved SIMON WILLARD AND SON. The long pendulum of this clock hangs in a well in the marble case so that the bob is not accessible, and the problem of mounting and adjusting it is solved in a unique manner with a characteristic Willard touch. He uses the T-bridge, developed for the timepiece and recognized as his own, with a threaded section of rod passing through the bridge and secured on top by the adjusting nut. The clock was probably made after 1828, when Simon Jr. established his chronometer and watch shop in Boston.

Nothing is taken away from the great name of the maker of these clocks in assuming that he made use of the device which other clockmakers of his day were accustomed to use. Simon Willard's fame rests firmly on his skill and his devotion to the high standards of his craft, and these are no unfounded legend.