Part 6: Early American Clock Making


Grand Central Clock

When the Sons of Liberty dumped good British tea into the Boston Harbor during the "Boston Tea Party," two great American craftsman-patriots passed each other, probably without so much as a nod. They were Paul Revere and Thomas Harland. Harland moved to Norwich, Connecticut where he began making clocks. Harland learned his clock making skills while living in England . He first manufactured, or assembled, a type of clock with brass parts which were imported from England.

Harland's clock, which was common to the period, had a one-second pendulum that was approximately forty inches long. These clocks were usually found in cases that was six feet tall. The peddlers, of the era, often sold only the inner working of the clock. The cases were made to order by local cabinetmakers. Sometimes, in an effort to save money, the buyer did not order a case and merely fastening the movement to the wall. These are referred to as "wag-on-the-wall" clocks.

One of Harland's apprentices was Eli Terry, who subsequently started his own business in Northbury, Connecticut around 1793. Terry was also an apprentice of Daniel Burnap, this is where he learned the art of engraving. Burnap worked in several cities during his lifetime including Andover, Massachusetts and both Hartford and East Windsor, Connecticut. Burnap's clocks were especially distinguished for their intricate calendar, moon attachments, and for their lack of spandrels.

Terry encountered considerable difficulty during the early years of his business. He was forced to support both himself and his large family by repairing clocks and watches. To scrape up additional money he also did engraving and repaired spectacles.

Although Terry did not come up with the idea, he was the first person to extensively manufacture clocks with wooden parts. They were much cheaper than clocks built with imported brass parts. He was arguably the first person to apply for a clock patent in America. Several times a year he set about, in his wagon, selling his clocks, while his two apprentices continued to make them. With their wooden works, and various mechanical shortcuts, his clocks sold quite well. They were priced anywhere from $18 to $70. His clocks were so popular that his business expanded quickly and he became the first to use the power of water to cut the clock parts.

In 1807 he sold his factory, to an apprentice, and bought an old mill with the intent to mass-produce clocks. Many consider this to be the earliest attempt at mass-producing merchandise. He signed a three year contract with a retail firm in Waterbury, Connecticut, which required him to provide them with a total of 4000 clocks, at a price of $4 each. This was an enormous contract, unprecedented at the time, but Terry fulfilled it. Afterwards, he sold his mill to two of his employees, Silas Hoadley and Seth Thomas. By that time the retail price of the average clock, without cabinet, had dropped to about $5.

Terry never withdrew from a successful business without having the next one lined up. After selling the mill he became involved in a new clock-works, which made possible, the first cheap and practical shelf-clock. The shelf-clocks could be sold by Yankee peddlers without involving cabinetmakers. Terry died a wealthy man in 1852, at the age of eighty.

Eli Terry Sr

Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley were two more examples of early American self-made men. Their personalities were balanced perfectly between a craftsman, an inventor, and a businessman which resulted in an astonishingly capable and versatile entrepreneurs.

Both Thomas and Hoadley started at Terry's shop as humble joiners. Neither had any formal education and both came from poor families. They apprentices in hopes of learning the joining trade. Yet in 1810, when Hoadley was twenty- four and Thomas twenty-five, they were able to buy Terry's mill, which was the largest in America .

Thomas trained a long line of clock makers, and founded Seth Thomas which is one of Americas superior clock manufacturers. Hoadley, after leaving the partnership with Thomas in 1814, also was successful. He became a High Mason, a Democratic State Assemblyman, and a state Senator before dying in 1870. Another employee of Eli Terry, who rose to be a great American clockmaker, was Chauncey Jerome. The story of his life, as told in his "History of the American Clock Business", was one of courage, personal integrity, and ingenuity.

Competing with the clockmakers of Connecticut was another group located in Massachusetts. One of the greats was the Willard family. In 1773 Benjamin Willard advertised that he made clocks capable of playing a new tune every day of the week and a Psalm on Sundays. Benjamin's two younger brothers were Simon and Aaron. Simon was the better clockmaker, but Aaron was the superior businessman. Simon Willard invented the Banjo Clock, so named because of the shape. This new wall clock was an instant success and in 1802 he had it patented.

Around 1805 Simon Willard gave up his peddling tours to take care of his increasing business. In 1801 he made a magnificent clock for the United States Senate, for which he was paid $770. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1814 when the British burned Washington. Simon Willard is best remembered for both the Banjo Clock, which was quickly imitated despite him having the patent, and for large public clocks, of which he made about thirteen. He retired in 1839, at the age of eighty-seven. He spent his remaining nine years puttering around the shop of his son, Simon Junior and a former apprentice Elnathan Taber.

Simon's brother Aaron began started his business in 1780. Oddly enough none of the Willard's were ever partners. Aaron's clocks were inferior to Simon's but, because of his superior business abilities, made and sold more. Another of the Willard brother, Ephraim, was also in the clock business. Several of Simon's descendants carried on the tradition. The Willard clocks always had brass works and were more expensive than those of the Connecticut craftsmen.

The small group of Connecticut clock makers were responsible for the unusually early industrialization of clock making. As a group they were responsible for transforming clock making into the large-scale commercial industry it is today.