The History of the German Cuckoo Clock
Clocks, watches, and other timepieces are a huge part of our everyday lives. Being on time, wasting time, making time, and not having enough time are all things that rule just about every aspect of our daily lives. It's something that most of us take for granted and we spend little of our precious time wondering where clocks and watches even came from in the first place. Keeping track of time and finding a reliable way to track that time actually has a long and fascinating history.
The first clocks in history were sundials. As the sun crossed the sky each day, a large round plate placed on the ground with a long arm sticking out from the center would track the movement of the sun, indicating what time it was. These were first used around 3500 B.C., but they weren't exactly accurate and they could only be used outside when it was sunny out. Around 1400 B.C. the Egyptians invented the water clock. A water clock worked by slowly pouring water from one container to another which would cause a dial to move, indicating what time of day it was. This method of time keeping was much more accurate than the sundial and was more reliable because it could be used indoors and at night. The Greeks used water clocks and improved their accuracy over the years by more precisely determining the exact length of the year, month, week, day, hour, minute, and second.
The first clocks as we have come to know them were not invented until 1500 when Peter Henlein first invented the spring-powered clock in Germany. This was a major breakthrough in timekeeping because until that time clocks were quite large in order to house the mechanisms that were needed to make the clocks work. Henlein's spring-powered clock was small enough to be placed on a table or mantle, however they were not the most accurate timepieces being used at the time. It wasn't until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656 by Christian Huygens that more accurate and portable clocks were made available by allowing the minute hand to keep track of time more precisely.
It was during this time that the cuckoo clock first made its appearance in the timekeeping world. The very first cuckoo clock was actually thought to have been in existence since the 1620s, several decades before the invention of the pendulum clock, but this was a more primitive form of the cuckoo clock using wooden cogged wheels and simple stones for timing weights. The birthplace of the famous German cuckoo clock was in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany in or around 1730. The actual inventor of the pendulum-driven cuckoo clock, however, is greatly debated by clock-making scholars and no definitive answer seems to have been agreed upon.
One of the most famous fathers of the German cuckoo clock, however, is Franz Anton Ketterer. This master clockmaker from the Black Forest village of Schönwald is credited with inventing the technology used to create the sound of the cuckoo's chirping call at the top of each hour. Using a system of two small bellows and pipes, the distinctive koo-koo sound of the German cuckoo clock was developed. Two small pipes are attached to the tops of two air-driven bellows that make alternating high and low pitched whistles that mimic the sound of the cuckoo bird. At the top of each hour as the cuckoo clock's iron weights and swinging pendulum cause the clock's wheels to turn, the cuckoo bird is released from his nest and the bellows are activated sending alternating puffs of air into each pipe causing the sound of a cuckoo. From this point on, the cuckoo clock became synonymous with the Black Forest and the union of time mixed with beauty was born.
Clockmakers in the Black Forest region began developing their own styles and characteristics in their cuckoo clock designs, but two main forms established themselves as the dominate styles over the years. The "framed" cuckoo clock used a wooden frame to surround a wide hulled out inner section that was painted with bright colors inside. Typical Black Forest scenes were created inside this style of cuckoo clock with the cuckoo bird being placed somewhere at the top of the carved and painted scene. Other moving parts may have been included, such as children playing or animals running. The "railway house" cuckoo clock was made to look like the typical Black Forest structure with its pointed roof and square shape. The front of this cuckoo clock would often be decorated with hand carved ivy leaves, flowers, or other wildlife scenes and the cuckoo bird would be hidden behind a trap door at the top, only to peek out at the top of the hour. It was meant to mimic the typical railway houses that stood at each German railway stop at the time.
Today, the "railway house" or "Bahnhäusleform" cuckoo clock is the most popular Black Forest cuckoo clock being made today. While the typical pendulum and weight driven mechanism of the traditional German cuckoo clock is still the most popular style being made today, there are also quartz battery powered cuckoo clocks that produce a digitized cuckoo recording each hour. No matter which type of German cuckoo clock you choose, knowing the long history that goes along with clock making is sure to add to your appreciation of the cuckoo clock and the development of accurate timekeeping itself.