What Are the Different Types of Grandfather Clocks?

Nathania Maddox

Supposedly while traveling through England circa 1875, American songwriter Henry Clay Work learned of the history of the Jenkins brothers, whose floor clock stopped telling time after they both passed away. One year later, Work commemorated the siblings in his song "My Grandfather's Clock," and the title has been identified with the unique and diverse timepieces ever since.

Back during those days, grandfather clocks were difficult to make and of limited variety. As time passed, however, improved manufacturing techniques led to timepieces in a diverse range of materials and architectural styles.


What Are the Different Types of Grandfather Clocks?

There are several ways to classify grandfather clocks: the materials they are constructed of, the designer or manufacturer that creates them and their architectural description. In the first case, clocks are built and finished with many types of material, although a form of wood, such as beech or cherry, is most common. It's also possible to find styles that incorporate stone, metal, glass and other components.

In the second case, popular grandfather clock designers include names ranging from Howard Miller to Seth Thomas to Kleninger to Bulova. Finally, the timepieces are sometimes categorized as antique/traditional or contemporary, based on details like the winding mechanism used and the visual style. For example, traditional clocks are usually wound with a key or by positioning the weights and have elaborate carvings, while many contemporary clocks are simply battery-operated and possess sleeker lines.


Pendulum clocks, the direct ancestor of grandfather clocks, represented a major advancement in measuring time when they were first invented. Prior to their development, people only had inaccurate sundials and then hefty mechanical clocks to help record the minutes of the day, and measuring seconds wasn't even a possibility.

Dutch astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens changed everything when he constructed the first pendulum clock in 1656 with an initial error rate of less than one minute a day. This accomplishment allowed English clockmaker William Clement to create the first grandfather clock when he combined an escapement that improved the precision of the pendulum's swinging motion with a longer pendulum that required a longer case to house it.


No matter what the type, grandfather clocks typically stand between six and eight feet tall and have numerous names, including floor clock, longcase clock and tall-case clock. The common factor is their method of keeping regular time--often with a chime at regular intervals--through the use of a pendulum, weights and an escapement mechanism. An additional common feature of the large timepieces is their distinctive dual usage as both clocks and decorative furniture.


In addition to their sentimental value when handed down through the generations, grandfather clocks are excellent timekeepers that add significant visual appeal to a home's décor. There are few pieces of furniture that are as functional, attractive and worthy of heirloom status.


Given their large size, heaviness, and intricate design and craftsmanship, grandfather clocks are very expensive and have to be moved with great care. At the same time, thanks to their impressive precision, maintaining them often requires no more effort than regular dusting and winding or battery changes.