“They call me Granddad. When it’s time to wind me up, one of them says to the other, ‘Time to wind Granddad! Fancy calling me that when my real name is Longcase!”
As summer gives way to autumn, I thought today I’d write something slightly different from my usual posts on recipes,my latest perfume or book. Today I am going to talk about clocks and barometers.
For many a clock, the most attention it will receive is when we enter or (as will happen in late October) we exit British Summer Time here in the UK, a practice first devised in 1916 (but over which opinion is now divided.)
Modern clocks – from the Latin cloca, meaning “bell” – were first made in the 13th century. These were monastic clocks used to summon monks to prayer. The real breakthrough in clockmaking came in 1657 when Christian Huygens (1629-1695), a Dutch scientist, built the first clock based on Galileo’s recent discovery of the pendulum. The first Dutch pendulum clocks were the forerunners of English bracket clocks (designed to stand on a wall bracket) but from the early 18th century many bracket clocks sold in Holland had a London movement inside a Dutch case.
The earliest longcase clocks were architectural in style. Walnut veneer was used from the 1670s but between 1680 and 1720 marquetry decoration was popular. Mahogany appeared after 1720 and mahogany country clocks are generally broader and more elaborate than their London counterparts; furthermore, it is the more slender clocks that generally command the higher prices.
The main period for serious British clock collecting covers a rather short period – from 1660 to 1720. This was the era of the square dial or with an arched top (round 1720). Interest then widens to include Georgian clocks and today even Victorian clocks make attractive items of furniture.
Most longcase clocks are 8-day clocks and those with ‘Westminster’ chimes never predate 1856-7 as that is when the Westminster clock tower incorporating ‘Big Ben’ was built (the bell which is currently silent because of essential repairs to the tower.)
I would like to add that while our longcase (Granddad) is a handsome beast, he is not particularly old. According to a label inside, the clock was made in Silesia and we have no reason to believe that the clock and the case weren’t made for each other. It was already in situ in the bungalow which my husband’s parents bought in 1938 but it is obviously older than 80 years, the decoration being very much in the Arts & Crafts style, and it is very much a country clock as the case is made of oak (making fine decoration difficult, if not impossible) but it is a handsome country clock nonetheless. Indeed, we have never seen another clock quite like this one as it doesn’t have a ‘hood’; the door opens to reveal not only the weights and pendulum, but also the clock face.
Also, inherited from my husband’s parents is a barometer …
This kind of barometer is known as a banjo barometer for obvious reasons. There are other kinds: ‘stick’ barometers and a barometer which does not require mercury, the aneroid barometer.
It was pure sentiment that prevented us from dispatching our barometer to the tip (sorry, the Local Authority Recyling Depot). It had seen better days. It was sans mercury, sans alighment wheel, sans just about everything!
However, I was about to write a piece for a magazine on the history of barometers and, as such, visited the owner of Barometer World in North Devon. At the last moment I suggested to husband we take our old barometer with us and ask his advice: is it worth restoration or not? As you can see above, he pronounced that it was most certainly worth restoration, and he made an excellent job of it. The restoration cost perhaps more than the instrument is worth today, but that was immaterial to us. It is a family piece, it’s a handsome piece of wall furniture and, what is more, it actually works!
Until I visited Barometer World I had been under the misapprehension that barometers were just rich Victorian gentlemen’s playthings, something for them to tap and harrumph over as they passed through the hall on their way to their kippers or kedgeree for breakfast. Indeed, these instruments, when correctly calibrated (and that is important – we had to tell Barometer World how many meters we were above sea level) are extremely accurate in predicting the local weather for the next 12 to 24 hours.
It was in 1643, whilst conducting experiments on notes by Galileo, that Italian mathematician and physicist Evangelista Torricelli discovered that by using mercury he could create a vacuum in an inverted class tube and the level of the mercury would rise and fall with the day to day changes in the atmospheric pressure, and this, as most of us know, is how a barometer works: indicating the daily differences in atmospheric pressure.
Indeed, the barometer has saved countless lives. Amongst other things – Captaining the Beagle which carried Charles Darwin around the world and eventually becoming the Head of Meteorology at the Board of Trade – Robert FitzRoy designed two barometers: a marine barometer for use at sea, and a ‘coastal’ barometer (later named the ‘storm’ barometer). By 1858 he had arranged for his ‘coastal’ barometer to be displayed in ports around the British Isles to warn sailors of bad weather. To honour Fitzroy, on 4th February 2002, the shipping area formerly known as Finistere was re-named FitzRoy.
And there you have it, two instruments which, in their own ways, indicate seasonal changes – putting the clock back or forward in spring and autumn, and the changing weather, from mostly dry and sunny in summer and perhaps rather less so in autumn.
As I wandered around the house early this morning, I couldn’t help but admire these two elderly instruments. Had they been electronic devices they would surely have been consigned to the tip years ago, but as they were built with precision and rely solely on mechanics or, in the case of the barometer, atmospheric pressure, hopefully they will continue to serve us for many years to come.
And as summer gives way to autumn, the light is lower in the sky … I like to see the changing light at this time of the year.
I took this photo about 7.30am this morning, the sun coming from an east-facing window
The gladioli that I photographed a couple of days ago are now opening out fully and look rather beautiful in the morning sunlight also from an east-facing window
And afternoon sunlight, yesterday …
when the light was coming through a small west-facing window.
Enjoy the daylight hours, for they are fast diminishing, and enjoy the sunlight when it appears.
Until next time.