I learned about the history of a cuckoo clock through a paraglider about a month ago. It was pretty exciting stuff... it was also exciting to know someone is as geeky as me when it comes to random facts about kitschy items! The paraglider posted a picture of his cat today and it reminded me of our fun conversation so I decided to delve deeper into the cuckoo clock today!
The cuckoo clock is one of the most iconic timepieces; however, it is unknown who invented it and where the first cuckoo clock was made. Although the history of the cuckoo clock is still a topic of debate among clock makers, nearly every cuckoo clock expert agrees that the development and evolution of the cuckoo clock occurred in the Black Forest area in southwestern Germany.
The first known description of a coo coo clock dates back to 1629 when a German nobleman named Philipp Hainhofer described a clock belonging to Prince Elector August von Sachsen. In 1650, scholar Athanasius Kirche documented the elements of a mechanical cuckoo clock in an engraving in a handbook on music, Musurgia Universalis. In 1669, Domenico Martinelli penned a handbook on elementary clocks, Horologi Elementari, and described how the cuckoo call indicates the time.
The first Black Forest cuckoo clock is attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clock maker from the village of Schönwald, who, inspired by the bellows of church organs, started incorporating the cuckoo’s sound into clocks. By the mid-18th century, many clock-making shops in the region were producing cuckoo clocks with wooden gears. Today, Ketterer is known as one of the founding fathers of the Black Forest clock making industry.
The cultural icon was developed and refined by wood-carvers and German cuckoo clock manufacturers from the Black Forest, a 100-mile stretch of pine trees so dense the sun struggles to reach the forest floor. In the late 17th century, many farmers used logs from the forest to build cuckoo clocks to supplement their income during the winter months. To this day, Black Forest cuckoo clock makers preserve the rich history of the region, using the same means as their forbearers to hand carve cuckoo clocks known for their quality and craftsmanship.
The intricate carvings that decorate many cuckoo clocks start out as a block of wood. A clockmaker outlines the basic shape of the clock using a stencil and paint, then cuts it out with a jigsaw. Using up to 50 different knives, the artisan will begin carving the wood. Sometimes a case has no carving at all; instead, an artist paints an elaborate design. Other cuckoo clock cases have a combination of painting and carvings.
On the inside of the clock is a system of brass gears that keep time and trigger the cuckoo function. The components vary depending on whether it’s a one-day or eight-day movement. Every cuckoo clock also has two chains and two cast iron weights that regulate the speed at which the movement gears turn. To make the quintessential cuckoo call, air pumps in and out of two miniature bellows. Before each cuckoo, a hammer on the end of a wire hits a tiny gong. The number of cuckoos indicates the hour.
A cuckoo clock is deemed an authentic Black Forest cuckoo clock when the clock and all of its essential parts — everything from the clock case and the decorative details to the bellows and the mechanical movement components — have been handmade exclusively in the Black Forest region of Germany.