How Did The Grandfather Clock get its Name?

If you are always curious and questioning things, you probably wondered why the Grandfather Clock got its name, or at least, it is something that has piqued your inquisitive self. For those who don’t know, a grandfather clock (alias flor clock, longcase clock, and tall-case clock), is a tall, self-supporting, weight-driven pendulum clock. Typically standing at 6 to 7.5 feet tall, this clock was normalized by the Classical architects but evolved to feature a variety of styles and designs.

But how did it get its name? Is it because it’s old and antique? 

Granted, a grandfather clock is a fitting name for an item that tends to be considered a family heirloom. However, you will be surprised to find that the name isn’t actually that old. 

The story behind it is quite intriguing.

Back in 1875, Henry Clay Work, a songwriter from America headed to North Yorkshire, England. 

His accommodation, George Hotel, had a large pendulum clock at its atrium. Interestingly, the clock was not functioning; it was like a decoration in the hotel lobby. The unmoving clock captured the attention of Clay Work and he wanted to know how it got there. 

The proprietors told him a story about the giant clock, though no one knows if it is true and also it isn’t relevant to the naming of the clock.

According to the story, the giant clock belonged to two previous owners of the hotel who were identified only as the Jenkins brothers and both deceased at the time. As per the account of the proprietors, the clock seemed to work seamlessly and kept perfect time before the two brothers died, but things changed after they died and the clock became less and less accurate. 

After some time, according to the story, the clock stopped completely, to the second and minute the Jenkins brother died. Many horologists came and tried to resurrect the clock but in vain and no one could ever get it going again. 

When the new owners came in, they decided to keep the clock since, besides being dead, it was pretty much aesthetic and stylish. Also, they didn’t want to pay for it to be fixed. 

Clay Work found this story amusing and being an artist, he couldn’t resist an urge to write a song about it. So he did just that, and titled the song “My Grandfather’s Clock” and was released in 1876. 

The song is pretty famous actually, you can watch it below.

Everyone went crazy about it back then. It sold more than a million copies worldwide in sheet music, which was groundbreaking at the time.

The history of the clock 

The clock had to have a longcase in order to accommodate the anchor escapement that was invented around 1658. But before that, pendulum clocks used a verge escapement mechanism which needed wide pendulum swings of more than 80 degrees. This came with a disadvantage as the clock could not be fitted properly inside a case, so most of them were designed with short pendulums. 

But with the anchor mechanism, the pendulum swing was reduced by up to 4 degrees, enabling clockmakers to use slower ‘beats’ long pendulums. Besides the convenience, these also allowed the clocks to use minimum power, making them run longer. 

How to determine the age of a grandfather clock 

Do you know how old that grandfather clock in your garage is? As it turns out, you can pretty much tell the age of a longcase clock by combining different elements of the clock. 

The numbers 

The old versions of clock faces contained Roman numerals. This was somewhere between 1700 and 1870, but there were some Arabic number clocks from this time as well. 

If the grandfather clock’s face consists of minutes 60, 45, 30, and 15, it means it was made between 1800 and 1820. 

Other numbers could be in increments of 5 to 60, in which case, the clock was made between 1770 and 1800. 


Early grandfather clocks featured only one clock hand because the hour was much more important than the minutes. So if your longcase clock has only one hand, it might have been made between 1680 and 1770. 

The material of the casing 

Before 1880, longcase clocks were entirely custom-made and the wood used came from trees in England. The first clocks were made from oak with veneers in ebony and walnut. The case was the most important part of the grandfather clock and so, it involved too much work and details. 

Mahogany started to show up in clocks in 1750 onwards.