Cuckoo Clocks: A Complex History

Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Is there any clock more whimsical than a cuckoo clock? These antique clocks bring a smiley to every face when the loyal cuckoo bird pops out of his home to chime the hour. But do you know anything about the history of how cuckoo clocks came to be? Few do, yet the lasting legacy of this unique clock makes understanding where it came an important lesson for the antique clock lover.

Early History

Cuckoo clocks have been popular since the middle of the eighteenth century when they exploded throughout the backwoods villages in Germany's Black Forest. Because of this, many people that the cuckoo clock was invented in the Black Woods. In fact, the early origins of this clock go back farther. 
Back in 1629, a nobleman named Philip Hainhofer wrote the first known description of the cuckoo clock, basing it on a clock owned by the prince of the Electorate of Saxony. By 1669, a handbook by Domenico Martinelli circulated throughout Europe that described the mechanisms necessary to make a cuckoo clock, meaning that any educated man with access to his handbook could conceivably build one.

Black Forest Beginnings

The origins of cuckoo clocks in Germany are notoriously hard to pin down. The first Black Forest clocks were created around 1740, but two contradicting fables explain how they came to be.  
The first fable comes from Father Franz Steyrer and his book 1796 History of Clock Making in the Black Forest. In his book he describes the meeting between Black Forest clock peddlers and a traveling cuckoo clock salesmen. After gaining inspiration from the unusual clock, the two men made their own.
The second fable was started by Father Markus Fidelis Jack who named clockmaker Franz Anton Ketterer as the first inventor of the cuckoo clock after he was inspired by the bellows of a church organ.
Though the second story is the most common today, there is little consensus of the true origins of the famous clock.

A Long German Legacy

Nonetheless, cuckoo clocks have long been part of the culture of the Black Forest. Long known for creating the most beautiful and unique clocks in the world, cuckoo clocks are still one of the most popular exports from Germany today. 
If you are so lucky to own an antique Black Forest cuckoo clock, keep in mind that you are in possession of a treasure celebrating centuries of innovation and master craftsmanship.   

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