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How Grandfather Clocks Work


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grandfather clock face details Ever look inside a grandfather clock, see all those gears and mechanisms, and wonder how they keep the clock ticking?  Certainly, all those springs and gears do look complicated!  But once you understand how a grandfather clock works, you'll see it's really quite simple.

First of all, grandfather clocks fall under the category of pendulum clocks.  It is interesting to note that pendulum clocks have been in use since 1656, and they haven't changed much since then.  Basically, clockmakers in the 1600s wondered how they could get the second hand on a clock to go one revolution per minute.  The answer — by pendulum! — was as good then as it is now.

In a nutshell, the amount of time it takes a pendulum to go back and forth is directly related to the length of the pendulum.  As a result, a pendulum will swing at a different rate depending upon the size of the clock.  Grandfather clocks, for example, often have pendulums that swing once every two seconds.  The energy of the pendulum keeps the gears moving, which in turn move the minute and hour hands on the clock.

grandfather clock pendulum and weights All grandfather clocks are comprised of the following parts:

  • The face of the clock usually has attractive figures or designs in its spandrels, as well as a moon phase dial in its arch.  It may also feature small dials which measure seconds and calendar months.
  • The hands are usually made from blued steel, which was heated to darken its color.
  • The weight or spring provides the energy to turn the hands and dials.
  • The weight gear train acts as a type of energy storage device that allows the clock to run unattended.
  • The escapement is made up of the pendulum, anchor, and escapement gear.  This set of components regulates the speed at which the weight's energy is released, which in turn drives the clock's mechanisms.
  • The hand gear train connects to the clock's minute and hour hands.
  • The setting mechanism disengages the gear train so that the clock can be rewound and set.

So, when you "wind" a clock you are basically lifting a weight.  The energy that is produced by the weight falling allows the hands to move.  The escapement — which consists of the pendulum, anchor, and gears — ensures that the weight doesn't fall all at once, but instead regulates the release of the energy so the minute hand makes one revolution every 60 seconds.  The hands you see moving on the face of the clock may look simple, but there certainly is a lot going on behind the scenes!

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