The operation of a clock depends on a stable mechanical oscillator, such as a swinging pendulum or a mass connected to a spring, by means of which the energy stored in a raised weight or coiled spring advances a pointer or other indicating device at a controlled rate. It is not definitely known when the first mechanical clocks were invented. Some authorities attribute the first weight-driven clock to Pacificus, archdeacon of Verona in the 9th cent. Gerbert, a learned monk who became Pope Sylvester II, is often credited with the invention of a mechanical clock, c.996.
Mechanical figures that struck a bell on the hour were installed in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, in 1286; a dial was added to the clock in the 14th cent. Clocks were placed in a clock tower at Westminster Hall, London, in 1288 and in the cathedral at Canterbury in 1292. In France, Rouen was especially noted for the skill of its clockmakers and watchmakers. Probably the early clock closest to the modern ones was that constructed in the 14th cent. for the tower of the palace (later the Palais de Justice) of Charles V of France by the clockmaker Henry de Vick (Vic, Wieck, Wyck) of Württemburg. Until the 17th cent. few mechanical clocks were found outside cathedral towers, monasteries, abbeys, and public squares.
The early clocks driven by hanging weights were bulky and heavy. When the coiled spring came into use (c.1500), it made possible the construction of the smaller and lighter-weight types. By applying Galileo's law of the pendulum, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invented (1656 or 1657) a pendulum clock, probably the first. Early clocks used in dwellings in the 17th cent. were variously known as lantern clocks, birdcage clocks, and sheep's-head clocks; they were of brass, sometimes ornate, with a gong bell at the top supported by a frame. Before the pendulum was introduced, they were spring-driven or weight-driven; those driven by weights had to be placed on a wall bracket to allow space for the falling weights. These clocks, probably obtained chiefly from England and Holland, were used in the Virginia and New England colonies.
Clocks with long cases to conceal the long pendulums and weights came into use after the mid-17th cent.; these were the forerunners of the grandfather clocks. With the development of the craft of cabinetmaking, more attention was concentrated on the clock case. In France the tall cabinet clocks, or grandfather clocks, were often of oak elaborately ornamented with brass and gilt. Those made in England were at first of oak and later of walnut and mahogany; simpler in style, their chief decoration was inlay work.
Electric clocks were made in the second half of the 19th cent. but were not used extensively in homes until after c.1930. In an analog clock the hands of an electric clock are driven by a synchronous electric motor supplied with alternating current of a stable frequency. Digital clocks use LCDs (liquid crystal displays) or LEDs (light emitting diodes) to form the numbers indicating the time. The quartz clock, invented c.1929, uses the vibrations of a quartz crystal to drive a synchronous motor at a very precise rate. Some quartz clocks have an error of less than one thousandth of a second per day. The atomic clock, which is based upon the frequency of an atomic or molecular process, is even more precise; a state of the art atomic clock, such as the NIST-F1 (which is the U.S. time frequency standard clock), neither gains nor loses a second in 20 million years.
One of the most famous clocks is in the cathedral of Strasbourg; the clock was first placed in the cathedral in 1352, and in the 16th cent. it was reconstructed. In the 19th cent. a new astronomical clock (so called because it shows the current positions of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies in addition to the time of day) similar to the original clock was constructed; its elaborate mechanical devices include the Twelve Apostles, a crowing cock, a revolving celestial globe, and an automatic calendar dial. Among other well-known clocks of the world are the clock known as Big Ben in the tower next to Westminster Bridge in the British Houses of Parliament and the tower clock in the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building, New York City.
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