There have been timepieces with an automated bird since antiquity. The first one is credited to the Greek mathematician, Ctesibius of Alexandria (ca.285-222 BC), who in the 2nd century BC used water to sound a whistle and make a model owl move.
He had invented the world’s first cuckoo clock.
Later, in the Middle Ages, in 797 (or possibly 801), the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented Charlemagne with an Asian elephant named Abul-Abbas and a clock, out of which came a mechanical bird to announce the hours. The maker of this clock remains unknown.
An elephant clock, invented by the Arab inventor Al-Jazari, featured a humanoid automation in the form of a mahout striking a cymbal and a mechanical bird chirping after every hour and half-hour.
In Europe during the Late Middle Ages and later, roosters were used to crow the hours in certain clocks, like the first astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral.
The First modern cuckoo clocks
In 1629, many decades before clockmaking was established in the Black Forest, an Augsburg nobleman by the name of Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647) penned the first known description of a modern cuckoo clock. The clock belonged to Prince Elector August von Sachsen.
Likewise, in a widely known handbook on music, Musurgia Universalis (1650), the scholar Athanasius Kircher describes a mechanical organ with several automated figures, including a mechanical cuckoo.
This book contains the first documented description in words and pictures of how a mechanical cuckoo works.It should be noted that Kircher did not invent the cuckoo mechanism, because this book, like his other works, is a compilation of known facts into a handbook for reference purposes.
The engraving clearly shows all the elements of a mechanical cuckoo. The bird automatically opens its beak and moves both its wings and tail. Simultaneously, there is heard the call of the cuckoo, created by two organ pipes, tuned to a minor or major third.
There is only one fundamental difference from the Black Forest-type cuckoo mechanism: The functions of Kircher’s bird are not governed by a count wheel in a strike train, but a pinned program barrel synchronizes the movements and sounds of the bird.
Call of the Cuckoo bird was introduced to cuckoo clocks in 1669
On the other hand, in 1669 Domenico Martinelli, in his handbook on elementary clocks “Horologi Elementari”, suggests using the call of the cuckoo to indicate the hours. Starting at that time the mechanism of the cuckoo clock was known. Any mechanic or clockmaker, who could read Latin or Italian, knew after reading the books that it was feasible to have the cuckoo announce the hours.
Subsequently, cuckoo clocks appeared in regions that had not been known for their clockmaking. For instance, the Historische Nachrichten (1713), an anonymous publication generally attributed to Court Preacher Bartholomäus Holzfuss, mentions a musical clock in the Oranienburg palace in Berlin. This clock, originating in West Prussia, played eight church hymns and had a cuckoo that announced the quarter hours.Unfortunately this clock, like the one mentioned by Hainhofer in 1629, can no longer be traced today.
A few decades later, people in the Black Forest started to build cuckoo clocks.
First cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest
It is not clear who built the first cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest but there is unanimity that the unusual clock with the bird call very quickly conquered the region. Already by the middle of the 18th century, several small clock making shops produced cuckoo clocks with wooden gears. So the first Black Forest examples were created between 1740 and 1750. The earliest Black Forest examples had shields decorated with paper.
It is hard to judge how large the proportion of cuckoo clocks was among the total production of modern movement Black Forest clocks. Based on the proportions of pieces surviving to the present, it must have been a small fraction of the total production.
Regarding its murky origins, there are two main fables from the first two 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 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 clockmaking 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” (Description of Industry and Commerce of the Black Forest), (1810) said as follows: “The cuckoo clock was invented (in 1730) by a clock-master (Franz Anton Ketterer) from Schönwald (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.
On the other side, R. Dorer pointed out, in 1948, that Franz Anton Ketterer (1734–1806) could not have been the inventor of the cuckoo clock in 1730 because he hadn’t then been born. This statement was corroborated by Gerd Bender in the most recent edition of the first volume of his work “Die Uhrenmacher des hohen Schwarzwaldes und ihre Werke” (The Clockmakers of the High Black Forest and their Works) (1998) where he wrote that the cuckoo clock was not native to the Black Forest and also stated that: “There are no traces of the first production line of cuckoo clocks made by Ketterer”. However, Schaaf in “Schwarzwalduhren” (Black Forest Clocks) (1995), provides his own research which leads to the earliest cuckoos being in the “Franken-Niederbayern” area (East of Germany), in the direction of Bohemia (a region of the Czech Republic), which he notes, lends credence to the Steyrer version.
The cuckoo clock was NOT invented in the Black Forest.
The legend that the cuckoo clock was invented by a clever Black Forest mechanic in 1730 (Franz Anton Ketterer) keeps being told over and over again. But all of this is not true. This type of clock is much older than clockmaking in the Black Forest.
As early as 1650 the bird with the distinctive call was part of the reference book knowledge recorded in handbooks. It took nearly a century for the cuckoo clock to find its way to the Black Forest, where for many decades it remained a tiny niche product.
Although the idea of placing an automaton cuckoo bird in a clock to announce the passing of time did not originate in the Black Forest, it is necessary to emphasize that the cuckoo clock as we know it today, comes from this region located in southwest Germany whose tradition of clockmaking started in the late 17th century.
The Black Forest people who created the cuckoo clock industry developed it, and still come up with new designs and technical improvements which have made the cuckoo clock a valued work of art all over the world. The cuckoo clock history is linked to the Black Forest today, but it did not originate there.
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.
In the beginning of the 19th century 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”) 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) who would carry the dials and movements on their backs displayed on huge backpacks.
Framed Wall Cuckoo Clocks
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. Works by painters such as Johann Baptist Laule (1817–1895) and Carl Heine (1842–1882) were used to decorate the fronts of this and other types of clocks. The painting was almost always protected by a glass and 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 painted, and would pop out in 3D, as usual, to announce the hour.
From the 1860s until the twenties, and according to the decorative tastes prevailing in each moment, cuckoo clock cases were manufactured following different styles then in vogue such as; Biedermier (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.
But the popular house-shaped Bahnhäusleuhr (Railroad house clock) virtually forced the discontinuation of other designs within a few years.