Metropolitan Museum – Sun Dials And Clocks

An interesting collection of timepieces, besides watches, had for its nucleus the collection of seventy sun-dials and calendars, given by Mrs. Stephen D. Tucker.

Sun-dials or ” gnomons ” were the first instruments used in measuring time, and there is but little doubt that the obelisks of the Egyptians served this purpose. Clepsydras or water-clocks and sand-clocks came next in order; candle-clocks were also used, their invention being attributed to Alfred the Great. The first portable clocks were made by a German named de Souabe, and are supposed to date from 1300, but not until 1480 do we find mention of a clock made so that ” he might carry it with him to every place whither he might go ” — in other words, a watch.

Chime-clocks are first spoken of as belonging to Margaret of Valois in 1577, and clocks with automatic moving figures were soon after made at Augsburg, Germany.

The father of English clockmaking was Thomas Tompion, of London, a famous clockmaker, who lived during the last half of the 17th century and died in 1713. He and William Clement made long-case clocks as early as 1680. A peculiarity of these clocks is that the dials were square, and the wooden hood which covered the dial and works had to be lifted off to permit the clock to be wound. The first pendulums were called ” bob pendulums ” because they swung so far to the side that it was necessary to cut slits in the side of the case to allow them to swing free. Many clocks which started with bob pendulums were later supplied with long pendulums.

As to the dials, those of the period of William III and of Queen Anne were enriched by beautiful engravings, and the metal was not only of brass but of silver as well, and there were ornaments of ormolu in the form of figures and scrolls. Not a scrap of the face was left undecorated. On the extreme edge was placed a border of leaves or a herringbone pattern. The whole interior of the hour-circle was filled with flowers, scrolls and set patterns, either engraved or etched, and about the winding holes were extra circles and wreaths.

Among the earliest in the collection is an horizontal table clock made by William Prins of Rotterdam in the late 17th century. A clock face, by John Draper of London of the early 18th century, and a miniature long-case clock, by John Coonan of Edinburgh, of about 1755, should be noted.