The history of clockmaking has always been a race against time. Each advance in the manufacture of these machines that keep track of the hours, minutes, and seconds in a day has been measured in terms of the accuracy of those standard units of time. Naturally, the design of clocks is also of interest to horologists, from the space allowed for swinging pendulums to the fonts used on clock faces. But if a clock doesn’t keep good time, it’s just another decorative dust collector.
In mechanical clocks, the movement of the hands is regulated by the escapement, which is a device that basically controls the rate at which a clock’s stored energy is released. As that stored energy is depleted, the clock’s accuracy decreases, requiring it to be wound again, often weekly. This inefficiency spurred inventors to create something more reliable. In fact, the first electric clock was invented all the way back in 1843 by an Edinburgh clockmaker named Alexander Bain. Being first, though, is not always a virtue, which is why Henry Ellis Warren is usually credited with making the first prototypical electric clock in 1915.
The alternating-current motors in Warren’s clock held out the promise of avoiding the weekly winding ritual and, most importantly, of keeping more accurate time than mechanical clocks. Unfortunately, Warren’s clocks were only as reliable as the electricity that flowed into them, which, in those days, was still a work in progress. To try and bring predictability to what was then an infant industry, in 1916 Warren made a master clock for his local utility, the Boston Edison Electric Illuminating Company. This master clock was actually two in one. The first was electrical, keeping time as best as it could using the current from Boston Edison. The second clock was powered by a mechanical spring and pendulum, with its time updated twice daily to make sure it was in sync with the official time being kept at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Thus, when the electrical dial on Warren’s master clock was the same as the mechanical one, the utility knew that the current flowing from its power plant was stable.
Freed from the dimensional demands of grandfathers, banjos, and regulators, Warren’s Telechron clocks, as they were soon called, had license to be modern and beautiful. From the 1920s throughout the Great Depression, Telechron released Art Deco-style clocks in manufactured materials such as Bakelite, Catalin, and Lucite, as well as handsome woods. After World War II, electric clocks of countless makes and models embraced Streamline Moderne, which led to the Mid-Century Modern clocks of the 1950s and ’60s. Among the most famous of these were clocks designed by George Nelson and associates such as Irving Harper for the Howard Miller Clock Co., including wall clocks whose hands pointed to colored balls that resembled Tootsie Pops. Ironically, perhaps, these electrical clocks were battery powered, which meant that although they no longer needed winding, they were only as accurate as the freshness of their batteries, which began to lose their power the minute—or, to be more accurate, the second—they were first used.