Why Is It Called a Grandfather Clock?

Why Is It Called a Grandfather Clock? - Premier Clocks

The grandfather clocks have a long and fascinating heritage that is far beyond most would expect. When a grandfather clock was invented, it was the most accurate timepiece the world had ever seen. It was a massive hit on the market and caused a big change in the clock industry. But in the beginning, they were not called "grandfather clocks". There are different versions how they got this name and it is a great story.

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The History of the Grandfather Clock

The first grandfather clocks featured a classical architectural appearance, but a variety of styles have enjoyed popularity over the years.

One form of early pendulum tall clock was wall-mounted but, because of its heavy lead weights, probably difficult to secure. It is believed that the long case clock was developed to support these heavier clock mechanisms.

Most early models stood around 6 feet tall. Their midsections consisted of wooden cases that housed the ever-important pendulums. Over time, clockmakers started installing longer pendulums, which required longer cases in turn, hence the phrase "longcase clock".

Read more about The History of Grandfather Clocks


What Is a Grandfather Clock?

A grandfather clock is a colloquial name for a tall pendulum clock enclosed in a wooden case that stands upon the floor and is typically 1.8 to 2.3 metres (6 to 7.5 feet) in height. However, there are smaller versions of these clocks. The lower height long case clocks are famous as "grandmother clocks". A grandfather clock often treated as a family heirloom.


Why Sometimes It Is Called a Longcase Clock?

The original name of a grandfather clock was a longcase clock. Even though, now this type of clocks are mostly known as "grandfather clocks", sometimes it can be called by other names, such as "longcase clocks", "floor clocks", "standing clocks", "pendulum clocks", "eight day clocks" (even though it's less catchy).


Where Did Grandfather Clocks Originate?

Clock-making as a discipline took a huge spring forward in the 17th century. Around 1657, taking Galileo Galilei's research, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens built the very first clock that was driven by a pendulum.

The oldest grandfather clocks were built in 1680 by British clockmaker William Clement. The tall case clock was able to work through the anchor escape system that allowed much slower movement in the pendulum than was previously necessary. In previous systems, pendulums required an 80-100 degree swing.


When Were Grandfather Clocks Invented?

The large pendulum clock was invented more than 350 years ago.


Why Do They Call Grandfather Clocks by That Name?

On the first sight, it might seem obvious that the grandfather clocks are named like this because they belong to the world of grandparents. But the real reason has nothing to do with grandfathers.


How Did Grandfather Clocks Get This Name? 

Even though a grandfather clock carries the ring of heritage and tradition, the term itself is rather young. In fact, it is more than two centuries newer than the timepiece it designates. Today, we might still be using that mundane term "longcase clocks" or "pendulum clocks" if it had not been for a songwriter Henry Clay Work. The name grandfather clock was adopted after his song “My Grandfather’s Clock,” written in 1876.

There are two theories about what inspired Work to write a song.

The Story from the Relatives of Work's Wife

The less known explanation of the story is offered by one Massachusetts family. It comes from the relatives of Work's wife. Sarah Parker believes that they possess the clock that began this iconic song. To hear the Parkers tell it, the songwriter took his cues from an old longcase formerly owned by Sarah's grandfather. All these years later, this wooden clock still belongs to the Parkers — and no, it doesn't work either.

The Story about the Mysterious Pendulum Clock

When an American songwriter named Henry Clay Work was visiting England, he stayed in the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. The lobby hotel had a large old pendulum clock that has stopped working long time ago and served only decorative purpose.

The hands of the clock seemed to be stopped in place at the 11:05 mark which attracted Work's attention and he asked about its history. The proprietors told him a story but it is unknown if the story was real. Nevertheless, whether the story was true or not has nothing to do with how grandfather clocks got their name.

The story was that the clock had belonged to the inn’s previous two owners, the Jenkins brothers, and was purchased on the day the older sibling was born. It seems the clock had kept perfect time during their lives, but when the first Jenkins brother died, the clock started becoming less accurate.

After this, the story went that the clock stopped completely dead to the minute and second when Jenkins brother had died. You might think this happened because no one wanted to wind it, but Work was told it is because it broke. And no matter how they tried, the new owners of the inn could not fix the clock.

This story is probably just a bit of local folklore but Work was inspired by it and wrote a song. The song was called “My Grandfather’s Clock”. According to his nephew Bertram, Henry Clay Work spent four years writing this piece, which Root & Cady published in 1876. Work's song inspired a new nickname for a centuries-old timepiece. And that old clock is still on display in the lobby of the hotel.

The Lyrics of “My Grandfather’s Clock” Song

The ditty tells the tale of a grandfather who received a brand-new longcase clock on the day of his birth. A lifetime later, the man and his timepiece enter the great beyond together.

1. My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, So it stood ninety years on the floor;

It was taller by half than the old man himself, Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born, And was always his treasure and pride;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


Ninety years without slumbering (tick, tick, tick, tick),

His life seconds numbering (tick, tick, tick, tick),

It stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.

2. In watching its pendulum swing to and fro, Many hours had he spent while a boy;

And in childhood and manhood the clock seemed to know And to share both his grief and his joy.

For it struck twenty-four when he entered at the door, With a blooming and beautiful bride;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


3. My grandfather said that of those he could hire, Not a servant so faithful he found;

For it wasted no time, and had but one desire – At the close of each week to be wound.

And it kept in its place – not a frown upon its face, And the hands never hung by its side;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.


4. It rang an alarm in the dead of the night – An alarm that for years had been dumb;

And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight – That his hour of departure had come.

Still the clock kept the time, with a soft and muffled chime, As we silently stood by his side;

But it stopp’d short – never to go again – When the old man died.

The Popularity of the "My Grandfather's Clock" Song

The song went viral and it was sold over a million copies in sheet music, which was fairly unprecedented for the day. It became a mega-hit and emerged as an instant classic. The previous (rather un-catchy) term “longcase clock” was dropped almost immediately by the public in favor of the new “grandfather clock” moniker for the clocks.

3 Responses

Robert Monches
Robert Monches

May 08, 2024

We used to sing this song im assembly in the early grades of school and I always loved it. To this day I have remembered the words. Memories so fond.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

March 05, 2023

I really enjoyed reading the lyrics to that song and finding out where can I find o’clock got its name. That was a very powerfulll, heartfelt , sad,and
Intriguing song thank you.

Lee e melvin
Lee e melvin

February 06, 2023

Nice to know the origin of the grand father clock name. I have wondered about it for years. You have some very beautiful clocks bow.

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