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Cuckoo Clock History   Print

If you ask most of the people, who own a Cuckoo Clock hanging in one of their rooms about its history, chances are high that you will get “I don’t know” or maybe a few statements where they bought it. To help you out here, we sum up a short summary for you about the history and the tradition of this well-known clock.

The first so called “Black Forest Cuckoo Clock” was created over 280 years ago - around 1630 - in the village of Triberg, the Black Forest Region in Germany. Even if some sources say something different but most times Mr Franz Kettler was the person, who is brought directly into connection with the birth of the clock. But the story of the clock reaches even more back than this. It must have happened around 1630 that a peddler who sold glass from the Black Forest to foreign countries, returned with a clock, perhaps from the land of Böhmen (today's Czech Republic). So the technique and the idea was born somewhere different – but the Cuckoo Clock as we know it today comes form the Black Forest.

Somebody in the Black Forest, maybe Mr. Kettler, must have been fascinated by this idea, that kept time much better than the hourglass, that were used at that time. So, this person built his own clock, and started the tradition of clock making.

It did not take long for the Cuckoo Clock to gain incredible popularity within certain parts of Germany – even some major cities nearby. During those long winter months, the farms were snowed-in and the people had time to create finely hand-crafted cuckoo clocks of many styles with rich and varied carvings. The citizens even compete against each other for the best clock. People there had always crafted and carved using the local wood that was one of the few natural resources in the area. Each of them would try to create a more unique and detailed cuckoo clock than their neighbor’s clock.

With cleverness and dexterity, the clock makers were making cuckoo clocks with richly hand-carved decorations from various woods. In 1808 there were already 688 clockmakers and 582 clock peddlars in the districts of Triberg and Neustadt. It is known for example that in 1808 in Triberg, and the surrounding villages, 790 of 9013 inhabitants were involved in the clock-making. When Spring came around again; they would take their cuckoo clocks to town and display them.

That is the season when they would show off their hard work and sell their cuckoos to admirers.
In 1850 the Herzog (Duke) of Baden founded a School for clock-making in Furtwangen, where students learned math and drawing as well as making cases and movements for the clocks.

Thus the first clocks were rather primitive, the cuckoo clock was at that time really a piece of art – detailed crafted and featured by a hand carved cuckoo bird which was animated by various weights and pendulums. They used toothed wheels made of wood and simple stones as weights. Instead of a pendulum, they used a piece of wood called a "Waag" that moved forward and back above the clock dial, to make the clock keep time.

The so-called "Häuslers" where the people who made clocks at that time. They were not rich farmers, but clock making was a welcome way for them to earn a little money. In the Black Forest area, usually the oldest son of a farmer inherited the farm – the younger ones only got a small piece of land. So they were forced to look out for new ways to earn their living. Around 1690 a whole industry of clock making had developed in the high Black Forest.

When time went by people in the Black Forest continued to improve their techniques to produce clocks. Clock-peddlers travelling to different regions heard about new technologies which were developed in other regions. In the 17th century Friedrich Dilger from the small village of Urach went to France and brought back new ideas and tools in building clocks.

So people in the Black Forest began to specialize in certain aspects of clock making like carvers - making the cases -, painters and manufacturers of chains and toothed wheels. Others concentrated on new details like moving figures. In 1738 Franz Ketterer from the village of Schönwald was the first to build a cuckoo for his clocks. So the famous bird with the original sound “cuckoo cuckoo” was born.

At the same time there were large artist's clocks with a calling rooster in towns like Prague, Heilbronn, Berne and Strasbourg. Maybe they were the inspiration for Ketterer to build his cuckoo clock. Making a clock call like a cuckoo was easier than making it call like a rooster, but still it must have been quite difficult to develop this. The call of the cuckoo was made the same way it is today: two bellows send air through pipes. A similar technology was already in use for church-organs at this time.
The most valuable Black Forest clock is the "world-time-clock", which was built in 1787. It is located today in the German clock museum in Furtwangen.

One last thing that is important to be mentioned in this context is the origin of the "Bahnhäusle" clocks. When building the Railroad through the rocky Black Forest area around 1860, it was necessary to build many tunnels. For this, skilled tunnel-builders from Italy were hired, and they brought their way of life as well as their architecture with them. Alongside the railroad, lookout buildings were made, the so-called "Bahnwärterhäusles" which show the foreign influence. Adorned with wild grape vines, they were the inspiration for this special type of cuckoo clocks.
This ancient craft continued to develop, becoming soon a flourishing industry. The poorly lit spaces where the clock carvers worked have become light and well-equipped workshops where clock movements and cases are manufactured by modern methods. But the woodcarvings are still handmade by skilled masters as they were 200 years ago. Old clocks and original drawings of the first clocks are still used and modified as patterns for new models, but the cuckoo clock in its basic form is 200 years old. The cuckoo clock is a clock of the past, present and the future, still much loved by children and grandchildren.