Monumental Clocks

Monumental Clocks 


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During the last quarter of the 19th century, a novel and short lived breed of clock enchanted the American public—the monumental clock. The purpose of these large, complicated, and painstakingly handcrafted clocks was not so much to tell time as it was to awe and entertain, and in this sense they were very antithesis of the utilitarian machine-made timekeepers of the day. Between 1875 and 1900, more than two dozen such creations toured the United States and Europe, amusing and amazing crowds.


Like their forerunner, the great astronomical clock of the Strasbourg Cathedral (originally completed in 1354; rebuilt in 1574), these monumental clocks went way beyond simple clockwork to include astronomical indicators, animated panels, automata, and mechanical music. Much as Strasbourg's marvelous clock enacted Biblical and mythological narratives, the monumental clocks of 19th-century America teemed with classical and Christian symbolism while incorporating distinctly American characters and motifs.


The first known American-made monumental clock was the Engle clock. made entirely by Stephen D. Engle (1837-1921) in Hazleton Pennsylvania, it was completed around 1878, having taken a little over 20 years to build. Engle was more interested in invention than showmanship, and almost immediately turned over the management of the clock to Philadelphia entrepreneurs Captain and Mrs. Jacob Reid. Pronouncing Engle's clock "The Eighth Wonder of the World," the Reids exhibited the clock throughout the Eastern United States, charging 25- and 15-cent admissions for adults and children, respectively.


The clock was toured around the Eastern US almost continuously over the next 70 years until it disappeared from public view after a 1951 showing at the Ohio State Fair. Members of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors spent years searching for it and after tracking it down were able to acquire it in 1988. A lengthy restoration process conducted by museum staff and volunteers and paid for by donations from the NAWCC chapters returned the clock to its original splendor.