There really is a cuckoo bird. Let’s get that question out of the way.
Cuckoo clocks are typically pendulum-regulated clocks that strike the hours with a call from a common cuckoo and have an automated cuckoo bird that moves with each note. Some move their wings and open/close their beaks while leaning forward. The mechanism to produce the cuckoo call has been in use since the middle of the 18th century and has remained almost without variation to the present. But the casings have truly become works of art.
It is unknown who invented the clock or where the first one was made. Most researchers agree that the first clock came from the Black Forest area in southwestern Germany (see map). By the eighteenth century many clock shops were making them.
It is hard to say who made the first cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest (a wooded mountain range in southwest Germany) The first true clocks were created between 1740-1750. There are contradicting legends about the clocks origin. Father Franz Steyrer in 1796 describes a meeting between two peddlers who sold wooden clocks. He liked the idea so much that he copied it and showed the design to the Black Forest producers. They then started producing these clocks on their own. But in a chronicle written in 1927 by Adolf Kistner this theory was proved untrue due to a lack of any Bohemian type cuckoo clock being in existence today. The second legend, by another priest Markus Fidelis Jäck, states the clock was invented in 1730 by Franz Anton Ketterer. Unfortunately there were no sources that could verify this claim.
To further contradict the story of Markus Fidelis Jack in 1948 R. Dorer pointed out that Franz Anton Ketterer was not even alive at the time of the clocks creation. Research done in 1995 shows the first clocks showing up east of Germany (in the direction of Bohemia), giving credence to the first legend of the peddlers.
The clock is much older than when it first appeared in the Black Forest dating back to 1650. However the cuckoo clocks that we know today still come from southwest Germany. Cuckoo clocks are a timeless piece and their evolution is fascinating.
In recent years, quartz battery-powered cuckoo clocks have become available. As with their mechanical counterparts, the cuckoo bird emerges from its enclosure and moves up and down, but on the quartz timepieces it also flaps its wings and opens its beak while it sings. During the call the double doors open and the cuckoo emerges as usual, but only on the full hour, and they do not have a gong wire chime. The movement of the cuckoo in such clocks is regulated by an electromagnet that pulses on and off, attracting a weight, that acts as a fulcrum, connected to the tail of the plastic cuckoo bird, thus moving the bird up and down in his enclosure. Instead of the call being reproduced by the traditional bellows, it is a digital recording of a cuckoo calling in the wild (with a corresponding echo). The cuckoo call is usually accompanied by the sound of a waterfall and other birds in the background.
In musical quartz clocks, the hourly chime is followed by the replay of one of twelve popular melodies (one for each hour). Some musical quartz clocks also reproduce many of the popular automata found on mechanical musical clocks, such as beer drinkers, wood-choppers, and jumping deer.
Uniquely, quartz cuckoo clocks often include a sensor, so that when the lights are turned off at night they automatically silence the hourly chime. Other quartz cuckoo clocks are pre-programmed not to strike between a set of pre-determined hours. Whether this is controlled by a light sensor or pre-programmed, the function is referred to as a ‘night silence’ feature. On quartz clocks the weights are conventionally cast in the shape of Aleppo pine cones made of plastic rather than iron, as are as the cuckoo bird and clock hands. The pendulum bob is often another carved leaf. Here, the weights and pendulum are purely ornamental as the clock is driven by battery power. As with mechanical cuckoo clocks, the dial is usually small, and typically marked with Roman numerals.
Regarding its murky origins, only two legends from the first chroniclers of Black Forest horology which tell contradicting stories about it:
The first is from Father Franz Steyrer, written in his “Geschichte der Schwarzwälder Uhrmacherkunst” (History of the Art of Clockmaking in the Black Forest) in 1796. He describes a meeting between two clock peddlers from Furtwangen (a town in the Black Forest) who met a travelling Bohemian merchant who sold wooden cuckoo clocks. Both the Furtwangen traders were so excited that they bought one. On bringing it home they copied it and showed their imitation to other Black Forest clock traders. Its popularity grew in the region and more and more clockmakers started producing them. With regard to this chronicle, the historian Adolf Kistner claimed in his book “Die Schwarzwälder Uhr” (The Black Forest Clock) published in 1927, that there is not any Bohemian cuckoo clock in existence to verify the thesis that this clock was used as a sample to copy and produce Black Forest cuckoo clocks. Bohemia had no fundamental clock making industry during that period.
The second story is related by another priest, Markus Fidelis Jäck, in a passage extracted from his report “Darstellungen aus der Industrie und des Verkehrs aus dem Schwarzwald” (Descriptions of the Industry and the Traffic of the Black Forest), (1810) said as follows: “The cuckoo clock was invented (in 1730) by a clock-master [Franz Anton Ketterer] from Schönwald [literally “Beautiful Forest”, i.e. the Black Forest]. This craftsman adorned a clock with a moving bird that announced the hour with the cuckoo-call. The clock-master got the idea of how to make the cuckoo-call from the bellows of a church organ”. As time went on, the second version became the more popular, and is the one generally related today. Unfortunately, neither Steyrer nor Jäck quote any sources for their claims, making them unverifiable.
Even though the functionality of the cuckoo mechanism has remained basically unchanged, the appearance has changed as case designs and clock movements evolved in the region. The now traditional Black Forest clock design, the “Schilduhr” (Shield-clock), was characterized by having a painted flat square wooden face behind which all the clockwork was attached. On top of the square was usually a semicircle of highly decorated painted wood which contained the door for the cuckoo. These usually depicted floral patterns (so-called “Rosenuhren”, rose clocks) and often had a painted column, on either side of the chapter ring, others were decorated with illustrations of fruit as well. Some pieces also bore the names of the bride and bridegroom on the dial, which were normally painted by women. There was no cabinet surrounding the clockwork in this model. This design was the most prevalent between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. These timekeepers were typically sold from door to door by “Uhrenträger” (Clock-peddlers, literally “clock carriers”) who would carry the dials and movements on their backs displayed on huge backpacks.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century till the 1870s, cuckoo clocks were also manufactured in the Black Forest type of clock known as “Rahmenuhr” (Framed-clock). As the name suggests, these scarce wall cuckoo clocks consisted of a picture frame, usually with a typical Black Forest scene painted on a wooden background or a sheet metal, lithography and screen-printing were other techniques used. Other common themes depicted were; hunting, love, family, death, birth, mythology, military and Christian religious scenes. Some models displayed a person or an animal with blinking or flirty eyes as well, being operated by a simple mechanism worked by means of the pendulum swinging. The cuckoo normally took part in the scene, and would pop out in 3D, as usual, to announce the hour.
From the 1860s until the early 20th, cases were manufactured in a rich variety of styles such as; Biedermeier (some models also included a painting of a person or animal with moving eyes), Neoclassical or Georgian (certain pieces also displayed a painting), Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau, etc., becoming a suitable complementary piece for the bourgeois living room. These timepieces, based both on architectural and home decorative styles, are rarer than the popular ones looking like gatekeeper-houses (Bahnhäusle style clocks) and they could be mantel, wall or bracket clocks. The design of a cuckoo clock is now conventional. Most are made in the “traditional style” (also known as “carved”) or “chalet” to hang on a wall. In the “traditional style” the wooden case is decorated with carved leaves and animals. They have an automaton of the bird that appears through a small trap door while the clock is striking. The bird is often made to move as the clock strikes, typically by means of an arm that lifts the back of the carving.
But the popular house-shaped Bahnhäusleuhr (Railroad house clock) virtually forced the discontinuation of other designs within a few decades.
Miss McCulla is a retired English teacher of 32 years. She has Mastery of the grammar and mechanics of English, and has taught expository, fiction writing, and rhetorical skills to hundreds of students and aspiring writers throughout her career. She has written/edited/self-published five books, and currently manages and edits a writing blog called The Underground Tutor where she gathers essays, articles, entries, papers, manuals, profiles, criticisms, analyses of literature, just like those asked of students and writers in the university and publishing houses.
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