Cuckoo clock – A Look Back in History

Pop into your grandfather’s room and the odds are heavily stacked in favour of you finding a cuckoo clock on the wall. These clocks are a part of the heirloom for most families and are so intricately designed that they are deemed to be pieces of art to be cherished for generations. The origin of the cuckoo clock is shrouded in the midst of time and no clear documentation of it has ever been attempted. This has led to a lot of theories being floated about it, like one in Orson Welles 1949 classic The Third Man –

  • Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgia’s they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Famous as he might have been, Welles was famously wrong about the cuckoo clock. When the film was released, the Swiss politely pointed out to him that they had never made the cuckoo clock! It was a hilarious situation, something like comparing tree pruning in Melbourne to putting man on the moon.

Cuckoo clocks have traditionally been made in two versions. One is the small type that is hung on walls and the other is the large book case version with a large pendulum encased in a glass and a wood front with beautiful animals and leaves crafted on it. In all clocks, a small cuckoo pops out through a trap door and announces the hour with a coo-coo. And there are still others that play a small musical tone both at the full hour and half hour.

History says that the first cuckoo clock was designed and made around the 1730s by Franz Anton Ketterer, a well known clock maker in the Black Forest village of Schonwald, Germany. Even this has been subject to much debate with researchers estimating that the origin of the clock dates back around 100 years earlier. But there is common consensus on one point. There is no doubt that the intricately carved clocks were first made by the famous artisans and clockmakers of the Black Forest area.

With its reputation soaring from the late 18th century, the cuckoo clock underwent a transformation. While the initial versions were made entirely of wood, including the moving parts, clockmakers in Black Forest began replacing certain sections with metal and brass. This added to the durability of the clocks and its popularity around the world. In the first models, the “coo-coo” sound of the birds came from a network of bellows that pushed air through two wood whistles. This was regulated by a number of pendulums. While one worked to keep the wooden gears moving to run the clock, the second worked to exert weight on the bellows. Clocks with additional music have a third pendulum.

In keeping with the times, the cuckoo clock has undergone a transformation with the wood movement being replaced by a quartz one. The cuckoo now comes out from its enclosure, moves up and down, flaps its wings, and sings with its beak open to announce the hour. But whatever may be the technological innovations, the old world charm of cuckoo clocks will linger on for generations to come.