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Pre-digital Timing and Weighing

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Clocks in the 1940s and 50s

Clocks represent one of the most far-reaching changes of the world going digital.

Before the digital era, clock mechanisms contained moving parts and to keep good time, these parts had to be kept moving at a constant rate. There were various ways of achieving this - see below.

My recollections of clocks start from the early 1940s and are summarised below. From what my older family told me, I believe that nothing much had changed from the earlier years of the 20th century and even before.

Where to see clocks

Clocks were relatively expensive, but less so than watches. My family household in the 1940s, which was probably fairly typical, had one clock in the kitchen, one in the hall, one in the sitting room and one in my parents' bedroom. These household clocks are detailed below.

There was no means of telling the time in the other rooms. You may think, 'So what?' but it was more significant then because so few people had watches. Of course what we never knew, we never missed.

Apart from in the home, there were clocks in most major public places, for example in station booking offices, on church towers and inside larger shops. These clocks had big faces, so that they could be read at a distance.

Clock in the booking office of a small station, 1940s

Clock in the booking office of a small station

Clock in a large London station, 1948

Clock in a large London station, 1948, detail from a poster in York Railway Museum

Most owners of public clocks took pride in maintaining their clocks so that they kept reasonably good time. This involved regular minor adjustments to the mechanisms, as outlined below.

How wind-up clocks worked and were set

The most common types of clock were driven by a spring which kept the clock going as it unwound. Before the spring was completely unwound it had to be wound up again. Otherwise the clock stopped.

Keys to wind clocks

Clocks were wound with keys. These keys were separate for wall clocks, like the station clocks above and our household kitchen clock, and the hole that took the keys was in the front clock face.

 Key for winding up a clock.

Example of a separate key for winding up a clock. They came in various shapes and sizes, but always seemed to be hollow to take the winding rod.

It was important not to lose the key which was often tucked away behind or on top of the clock.

The sliding lever to make the clock go faster or slower

Also on the clockface of wall clocks was a small sliding lever which could be moved one way or the other to make the clock run faster if it was found to be losing time or more slowly if it was found to be gaining. The adjustment, though, was trial and error. Ideally the clock would eventually run at the right speed, but this seldom happened totally satisfactorily. Even changes in temperature affected mechanisms.

Some clocks had to be wound up every day, which was easy to forget, with the result that the clock stopped. Most, though, lasted 8 days, although some lasted longer, and it was usually the task of the man of the house to go round and wind them up. This was a weekly event. In our house it was on a Friday evening - which incidentally was also 'bath night'.

Setting the time was merely a matter of moving the hands into position, normally with one's fingers - but for chiming clocks this always had to be done in a forward direction to protect the mechanism. So even if the clock was just a few minutes fast, its hands had to be moved nearly all the way round its 12-hour face. No clock in ordinary households had a 24-hour face.

Mantel clocks

Mantel clocks, unlike wall clocks were portable and so were ideal for mantelpieces and bedside tables. Being portable, there was access to their backs which was where the controls were. This is shown well in the following picture. Note that the winding key is fixed.

Most wind-up clocks in the 1940s were in metal or wooden cases with a glass panel in a door at the front.

glass fronted beside clock, 1940s

Front and back of a typical wind-uo bedside or mantlepiece clock in the 1930s to 1950s. The controls are at the back and fixed; The winder wound the clock in the normal way and was pulled out slightly to set the hands. The sliding lever to make the clock go faster or more slowly is above the key and to its left.

It would not be right to generalise. Some mantel clocks had separate keys; the glass hinged open to get to the keyhole in the front face.

Pendulum clocks

Pendulum clocks were pieces of furniture and were necessarily tall and narrow to house the pendulum. They were in polished dark wood cabinets with tall doors at the front to get to the pendulum and the other controls which were normally set in the front face. This door usually contained a glass window because seeing the pendulum move from side to side showed that the clock was working and was considered attractive. It was also quite mesmerising.

Grandfather clock

Grandfather clock, photographed in Milestones Museum.

Wall mounted pendulum clock, 1940s

Wall mounted pendulum clock in my parents' home, bought early 1940s.

Grandfather clock winding handle

Grandfather clock winding handle

Grandfather clocks

My husband's parents had a floor-standing pendulum clock that had been in his family for generations and which was known affectionately as Grandpa, because these types of clocks were called grandfather clocks. My own parents had a smaller pendulum clock which was wall mounted.

Grandfather clocks used a slowly falling weight to drive them. They needed to be wound up with a winding handle which required many turns. While turning the handle there was a continuous clicking noise and the weights could be seen moving up.

The pendulum clock in my family made a clonking sound which in some strange way we regarded as company.

Pendulum clocks could be made to go faster or more slowly by adjusting the position of the pendulum bob up or down.

All the pendulum clocks that I knew chimed the hour, and some chimed the quarter and half hours, although the chime could be turned off.

Small versions of grandfather clocks were known as grandmother and granddaughter clocks

Cuckoo clocks

Cuckoo clock

Cuckoo clock

I first came across cuckoo clocks when I visited Austria as a teenager in the 1950s, but such clocks must have been in existence long before that. They were a form of pendulum clock, but much smaller, and they were also driven by weights on a chain which passed over a pulley inside the clock and was left dangling below.

The cuckoo clock was 'wound up' by pulling the free end of the chain, so raising the weight. As with all pendulum clocks the bob could be adjusted up or down to make the clock go faster or more slowly.

Cuckoo clocks were beautifully carved and painted, and owed their name to the carved 'cuckoo' which popped out and sounded 'cuckoo', usually on the hour.

I have no experience of these clocks, so have no idea how accurate they were.

Travel clocks

Travel clock were wind-up clocks in a hard leather case. As the photos show, the clocks were hinged into their cases, which were also hinged, so that they could lie flat when the cases were closed for travelling. Or with the hinges open, they be set to stand fairly upright for use.

Zip shut leather travelling alarm clock, 1950s

Zip to close leather travelling alarm clock, 1950s

Snap shut leather travelling alarm clock, 1960s

Snap to close leather travelling alarm clock, 1960s

Travel clocks were very popular indeed in the 1950s and 60s and their cases were regarded as fashion accessories. Mine, shown in the photo, was bright red but there was no shortage of other colours.

Early electric clocks and analogue versus digital

All the above clocks were analogue. This means that they have circular faces with numbers one to twelve around the outside, a hand to measure hours and a longer hand to measure minutes. Early electric clocks were digital which means that the display is rectangular, showing only numbers.

As the century progressed, the electric clocks entered households only had digital displays. They were accurate which was in their favour, but most people preferred the analogue because the position of the hands gave an instant indication of the passage of time. Fortunately there were developments which allowed electric clocks to have analogue displays.

In the 1960s my husband wanted to buy an electric clock which would work off the mains. However, I was averse to trailing leads, so we bought one of the new battery-operated ones instead.

Battery-operated clocks became very popular and were made in all sorts of designs. Nowadays battery-operated clocks and watches are the norm.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.



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