When most of us think about chiming floor clocks, we think of the classic long case grandfather clock. With a swinging pendulum, counter weights and distinctive chime tones, the term grandfather clock seems to have several origins. Whether referred to as long case, tall case or grandfather clock, these classic timekeepers owe their design to engineering discoveries dating back to the sixteenth century. The famous and controversial scientist Galileo Galilei was the first to understand that a swinging pendulum could power a clock movement. Mechanical clocks were not new in fifteen eighty two and had been in use since the mid thirteenth century. As a physicist, Galileo correctly calculated that a swinging pendulum, used in combination with a traditional mainspring would increase the accuracy of timekeeping.
As with many of the scientific discoveries credited to Galileo, it would many years for their importance to be fully understood. Despite this important discovery, it would take another seventy years for the pendulum to make its way into clock designs. Another scientist, Christian Huygens, working in Holland, took the pendulum and incorporated it into a working clock. Early mechanical clocks were not very accurate over time, but the Huygens made timekeeping far more precise. Rumored to vary only about two or three minutes per day, the new design was quickly adopted by clockmakers all over Europe.
The heart of the new design was the pendulum and counterweights. In combination with a mainspring, the counterweights were the key to keeping the pendulum in motion. Clock designers soon discovered that increasing the length of the pendulum produced a more efficient movement. Further design improvements credited to English clockmakers George Graham and William Clement increased the accuracy of the floor clock. It was not long before the clock movement, pendulum and counterweights were enclosed in wood cabinets. Until the term grandfather clock became popular, pendulum clocks were interchangeably referred to as long case or tall case clocks.
A popular source of the term grandfather clock lies in a song, The Grandfather Clock, credited to a man named Henry Work. Written in eighteen seventy five, the song is reportedly based on the story of a broken hotel floor clock. In much the same way art and music can influence the cultural lexicon, floor clocks, tall and long case clocks gradually became known as grandfather clocks.
In addition to the familiar grandfather clock, another type of floor emerged. The grandmother clock, as it became known as, is smaller than a grandfather clock. Not only is a grandmother clock not as tall but the size of the dial face is smaller, normally only eight inches in diameter. In contrast, a grandfather or tall case clock can stand over seven feet tall and has a dial face that can exceed ten inches in diameter.
Many grandmother clocks produced in the early nineteen hundreds rarely stood taller than six feet though no real standard is said to exist. An even shorter of the floor clock came to be known as a granddaughter clock. Much shorter than the taller grandfather clock, granddaughter clocks appeared in the nineteen thirties. Most vintage granddaughter clocks measure slightly more than five feet in height. As with the grandmother clock, the dial face is smaller.
Over the years, floors clocks of all kinds have continued grow in popularity and the grandfather clock remains by far the most well known of the genre. Even though new designs, with modern styles have been introduced, traditional designs have continued to be the most sought after clocks. Some contemporary grandfather clock models feature digital movements, replacing the standard, spring driven designs. Whether powered by the spring and pendulum or electric movements, the floor clock remains a classic.