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What is a Mechanical Clock?

By Phil Shepley
Updated May 16, 2024
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One older piece of technology that has not lost popularity in today’s digital age is the mechanical clock. Our fascination with clocks lies in their mechanical complexity along with their precision. A well-crafted series of parts allows a mechanical clock to measure and display the time of day with a highly varying degree of style. These clocks began to appear around the 1500s, and have been perfected into their modern forms ever since then.

The most recognizable component of a mechanical clock is its face. A standard clock face is round and consists of marks that denote the twelve hours of the day. The hands of the clock are also on the face and point to the hours, minutes and seconds to tell the specific time. Although this is the standard setup for the face of a mechanical clock, there are also a limitless amount of variations of clocks that are designed to show the time in unique and different ways.

Inside a basic mechanical clock is a gear train that is designed to turn the hands of the clock at a precise rate in order to keep the time. They are powered by two basic elements, which are the mainspring and the pendulum. The spring can be wound up by hand through the use of key, and as it unwinds it causes the gears to turn and move the hands of the clock. The pendulum of a mechanical clock is designed to swing back and forth at the same rate to guarantee that the hands move at an even pace.

Christian Huygens invented the first pendulum clock in 1656. He discovered that by utilizing the natural motion of a pendulum, which will oscillate at a precise speed, he could keep the gears of a clock moving at a much more precise rate. Some of his later advances in the gears and springs of clocks are still used in many wristwatches today. Other inventors went on to perfect the pendulum component to swing at an even more precise rate, thus allowing clocks to keep the correct times for even longer.

There are many very large clocks, such as the iconic Big Ben in London, England. Large clocks like this one produce precise time despite their enormous parts and are popular for their aesthetic value. Another popular type of mechanical clock is the uniquely recognizable grandfather clock, known for its tall wooden case. Mechanical mantel clocks are smaller still, are usually light enough for one person to move around, can be displayed practically anywhere, and can come in a wide variety of unique styles. One of these smaller clocks is the cuckoo clock, which incorporates a bird into its mechanics that is designed to “pop out” and announce the time by a series of tweets every hour or half-hour.

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