The Cuckoo Clock - From Past to Present

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Published: 19th January 2011
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Whether it's on the wall of your Grandparents home, shown in toy stores in cartoons, or at your local clock shop, the look and sound of the cuckoo clock is recognized throughout the world. Through legend and lore, fact and fiction, there is still speculation as to the original origin or inventor of the cuckoo clock, but combining researches have put together a popular tale. Whatever arguments there are with regards to the true origin, the ending still comes out the same; A beautifully handcrafted, one of a kind piece of artwork, carved with the generations of experience of the clock makers of the Black Forest .

Most of us associate the cuckoo clock with the Black Forest, they're synonymous with each other. While the Black Forest has long been considered the birthplace of the cuckoo clock, there is documentation that the concept of the cuckoo clock originated elsewhere. In 1629 Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647) from Ausburg penned the first known description of a cuckoo clock, which was owned by Prince Elector August von Sachsen. Then in 1650, the scholar Athanasius Kircher describes a mechanical organ with several automated figures, including a mechanical cuckoo. The bird automatically opens its beak and moves both its wings and tail. Simultaneously, we hear the call of the cuckoo, created by two organ pipes, tuned to a minor or major third.

Despite the differences in opinion as to who made the first cuckoo clock in the Black Forest, the most popular legend has it that in 1630, a glass peddler from Furtwangen (a region in the Black Forest) met a traveling trader from Bohemia, (a region of the Czech Republic), and brought back a crude, wooden clock, which used wooden gears and common stones as weights. There was no pendulum. Instead they used a piece of wood called a 'Waag' which moved back and forth above the clock dial. Crude or not, this new clock was a major improvement over their current method of using hourglasses and sundials to keep time.

Around 1730, clock makers of the Black Forest developed what is roughly similar to the cuckoo clock we know today. During the brutal winters they would stay huddled up making clocks. When Summer came around they would make a fairly good living by selling their clocks to 'clock carriers,' called 'Uhrschleppers' in German, who would then resell them throughout Europe. Over time, these clocks became more sophisticated with the adoption of new ideas, tools, and skills. People also began to specialize in certain aspects of clock making, such as carvers, case makers, and manufacturers of chains and toothed wheels came into being.

But the cuckoo call as we know it today didn't come about until 1738, when Franz Anton Ketterer (1676-1749), a clock-master from Schonwald [Black Forest] added to his clock a moving bird that announced the hour with the cuckoo-call. The clock-master had designed a system of small bellows and whistles to imitate the cuckoo's call, the same technology used for church organs. To this day, despite some dispute to the fact, Franz Anton Ketterer is still associated with the first cuckoo clock.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Black Forest clock design consisted of a painted flat square wooden face, behind which all the clockwork was attached. The square wooden face represented a shield (called the "Schilduhr", meaning 'shield clock'). On top of the square was usually a semicircle of highly decorated wood which contained the door for the cuckoo. There was no cabinet surrounding the clockwork in this model. This was the most prevalent model for the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, there were also cuckoo mechanisms combined with the "Rahmenuhr" (framed-clock). As the name suggests, this clock consisted of a picture frame, usually with a typical Black Forest scene painted on a wooden background or a lithograph. The cuckoo was usually included in the scene, and would pop out in 3D, as usual, to announce the hour.

As the cuckoo clock evolved and became more sophisticated in their designs and decorations, many changes started to evolve. At times, the birds' wings and beaks were animated, and sometimes they were decorated with feathers. The painters used hundreds of themes, including scenes of family, hunting, military motifs, and many other facets of German life. Some were even decorated with porcelain columns and enameled dials.

In 1850, Robert Gerwig, the first director of the Grandducal clockmaker school at Furtwangen, launched a public competition to submit designs for modern clockcases, allowing homemade products to attain a professional appearance. Friedrich Eisenlohr, an architect responsible for creating the buildings along the then new and first railroad line, submitted the most far-reaching design. Eisenlohr enhanced the facade of a standard railroad-guard's residence, as he had built many of them, with a clock dial. This wall clock became the prototype of today's popular Souvenir cuckoo clocks.

When a railroad was built in the Black Forest in the 1860's, a number of tunnels had to be built, and skilled workers were brought in from Italy. They also brought their life styles and architecture with them, building small lookout posts along the railway which were adorned with grapevines, and other Italian influences. Their picturesque structures were the inspiration for the Bahnhausle cuckoo clocks. The Bahnhausle style was starting to develop away from the cuckoo clocks original, crude graphic form, and evolve toward the well-known case with three-dimensional woodcarvings. 1862 Johann Baptist Beha started to enhance his richly decorated Bahnhausle clocks with hands carved from bone, and within a few years, the popular house-shaped Bahnhäusleuhr (Railroad house clock) virtually forced the discontinuation of other designs

The chalet style originated at the end of nineteenth century. There are currently three different basic styles: Black Forest chalet, Swiss chalet (with two types the "Brienz" and the "Emmenthal") and finally the Bavarian chalet. The Chalet cuckoo clock is often wrongly associated with Switzerland. This error is probably due to a story by Mark Twain in which the hero depicts the Swiss town of Lucerne as the home of cuckoo clocks

The basic cuckoo clock of today is the railway-house (Bahnhäusle) form, still with its rich ornamentation, and these are known under the name of "traditional".

Although the concept of placing a cuckoo bird in a clock may not have originated in the Black Forest, it does come from there today, an area in Germany with clock making experience dating back to the late 1600s. The clock makers of the Black Forest are continually evolving and creating new ideas, which has made the cuckoo clock a valued piece of throughout the world. Today, the 'railway house' (Bahnhäusle) form is the kind most often used, its unique, Black Forest design is instantly recognized anywhere in the world.

Still, through all the legends and tales, and design changes throughout the years, the most popular feature which still remains, is the famous cuckoo bird which comes out of its special door in order to sing his song at each hour.

For a wide selection of handcrafted Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks, visit us at - View the original article at The Cuckoo Clock From Past To Present

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