Why Grandfather Clocks Are Special

Howard Miller Grandfather Clocks in Showroom - Premier Clocks

Why are grandfather clocks called by this particular name? How did they acquire such a unique name?

With their amazingly long cases, swinging pendulums, echoing bells and the signature Roman numerals, one might think they are for “grandparents”, as the name suggests. However, it is totally unrelated. Grandfather clocks have a rich, charming history behind its name.


History of Grandfather Clocks

Tall case clocks or floor clocks first appeared in 1656, when famous astronomer and physicist Christian Huygens developed a pendulum-style floor clock. The use of pendulum in clocks transformed clockmaking and brought a more truthful method of keeping time compared to any other timepiece of its day. In 1660, London clockmakers finished Huygens’ invention and started making tall case clocks, a.k.a. grandfather clocks.

Standing a good six feet tall, grandfather clocks come in wooden cases with an enclosed pendulum and weights suspended by either cables or chains which have to be calibrated occasionally to keep the proper time. Grandfather clocks are very accurate and can tell time within one minute per month.

It wasn’t until 1671, when English clockmaker William Clement invented the anchor escapement using a “seconds” pendulum that made grandfather clocks more practical. Seconds pendulum is 39 inches long and vibrates through a small arc. Along with the creation of the “dead beat escapement” by George Graham in 1715 and the extension of the pendulum for better precision, an improved case often featuring an intricately carved ornamentation on the bonnet and extra chimes that make grandfather clocks unique from all the different types of clocks. Today, they are kept mainly for decorative and antique value.

A smaller and more affordable version called “Grandmother clocks” were also available. These often have 12-hour faces with a sweep second hand and only one of the winding holes on the right is useful while the rest are presented as a point of balance.

17th century clockmakers decided that the start and end of a week was an unforgettable time but they added one day for good measure, hence, the 8-day clock. Clockmakers ensured there was ample space in the tall case to allow the weight a full drop for that length of time without obscuring matters with extra wheels. A polished disc called a bob which is connected to the lower end of the pendulum or hung by cables from a secure support that swings freely back and forth under the influence of gravity, operates the clock and guarantees accurate time.

What gives power to move the cogs and wheels of grandfather clocks are the heavy lead weights that are wound up daily by pulling on a chain or using a winding crank. Wooden cabinets originally made by coffin makers were used to encase the movement of this type of clock, with a dial that tells the time.

Most of the dials follow moon phases through the 29 ½ days of the lunar month. The phases of the moon appear at significant times through the cycle as the rotating moon dial passes behind Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The dials also showed the month and occasionally the day or week. Sweeping-second hands were uncommon on earlier grandfather clocks.

The number of key holes in the dial specify the clock’s type of movement. One winding hole shows that there is only a time train while a second one shows a strike train and a third allows for winding a chime.

The number of key holes in the dial of a grandfather clock indicate the clock’s type of movement. One winding hole indicates that there’s only a time train. A second one indicates a strike train, and a third allows for winding a chime. At present, most grandfather clocks have either a 30-hour or 8-day movement.

  • 8-day clocks – Requires winding only once a week and are driven by two weights – one driving the pendulum and the other is striking mechanism (usually a bell or chime). These movements have two keyholes, one of each side of the dial to wind each one.
  • 30-hour clocks – Less expensive than 8-day clocks and require daily winding. Have a single weight to drive the timekeeping system and run the striking mechanism. Some were created with false keyholes giving a façade of the more expensive 8-day clocks.

The crown is normally referred to as being the top portion of the grandfather clock. There are 4 popular types of crowns:

  • Bonnet (full arched facade)
  • Federal
  • Flat
  • Split Pediment


Cable-driven vs. Chain-driven Grandfather Clocks

Most tall case clocks are cable-driven, meaning that the weights are suspended by cables which wrap around a pulley mounted to the top of each weight. Cable clocks are wound using a special crank known as a “key” into the holes in the clock’s face and turning it. For chain-driven grandfather clocks, the weights are suspended by chains wrapped around gears in the clock’s mechanism, with the other end suspended down beside the weight. To wind a chain-driven grandfather clock, one pulls on the end of each chain, lifting the weights until the weights come up to just below the clock's face.

There are 4 types of chimes:

  • St. Michael Chimes - The tune of the chimes in St. Michael's Church in Galveston, South Carolina.
  • Westminster Chimes - The tune of the chimes in the Clock Tower at the House of Parliament in London.
  • Whittington Chimes - The tune of the chimes of St. Mary Le Bow Church in London.
  • Winchester Chimes - The tune of the chimes in the cathedral in Hampshire, England.


Types of Grandfather Clocks

  1. Comtoise Clocks – Known as “Morez clocks” or “Morbier clocks” that originated in France in 1680 and are one of the most common types of grandfather clocks. A provincial, weight-driven clock with features of a curving "potbellied" case and more intricate curved lines. A heavy, elongated, highly decorated pendulum bob extends up the case.
  2. Bornholm clocks - Danish grandfather clocks made in Bornholm from 1745 to 1900. Features a gentle crown and are more square-shaped than other grandfather clocks. It has a small window on either side from which to view the workings of the clock. Runs on a mechanism of lead weights, each weighing around 8 pounds.
  3. Mora clocks – Swedish made clocks in the 18th century. Mora clocks have 8-day movements with cast-iron weights and a long, slim body which are perfect for small and narrow spaces. The size of these clocks measures up to 12" deep, 99" tall, and 28" wide.

Owning a grandfather clock is probably the best investment you can make. It’s a classic timepiece that can be passed down as family heirlooms!


More about grandfather clocks:


1 Response

Carol Martinkovitch
Carol Martinkovitch

December 16, 2023

I have a Howard Miller Grandfather clock. I pulled the chain to bring up. The pendulum weight and lifted the heavy weight at the same time. The chain came off the gear. It is behind the face. How do I fix this predicament? Please.,

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