Eli Terry, American Entrepreneur

Historians tend to overlook the contributions of master clockmaker Eli Terry (1772-1852) to the American Industrial Revolution, preferring instead to focus on Eli Whitney (1765-1825) for his invention of interchangeable parts and the cotton gin and subsequently Henry Ford (1863-1947) for the assembly line that produced Model T automobiles. Born in the colony of Connecticut just prior to the onset of the Revolutionary War, Eli Terry grew up in a world of farming and cottage shops. Equipment was hand-made or locally manufactured; the original colonists could only bring with them their knowledge of a trade and the skill of their hands.

At a time when European clockmakers were fabricating intricate brass clocks, miniature watches that were hidden in ladies rings, plus intriguing automatons admired by royalty, American clockmakers of the 1700s were employing their ingenuity fashioning tall case clocks that simply kept time. Connecticut was the center of American clockmakers in the 18th century and Connecticut clock companies maintained a viable presence in the state’s economy through the early 20th century until the time of the Great Depression (1930s). Thomas Harland (1773-1807) opened one of the first clock making shops in Connecticut, creating early tall case clocks. Harland was the first to introduce standardized parts to the manufacture of American clocks. His apprentice, Daniel Burnap (1759-1838), continued to use Harland’s approach to manufacturing clocks and subsequently taught it to his own apprentice, Eli Terry. Eli Terry completed his clockmaking apprenticeship in 1792.

Eli Terry gained the distinction of being a pioneer entrepreneur in American mass production when he established a clockmaking factory in Plymouth, Connecticut in 1793. Instead of manufacturing brass clock mechanisms, Eli Terry fabricated his early mechanisms from wood. He only used expensive brass for the crown wheel, the pendulum, and its pivot mechanism. Initially he fabricated wooden clock gears on a hand-operated machine augmented by a treadle-powered lathe. Terry received his first clock-related patent on November 17, 1797; in his lifetime he received ten patents.

Eli Terry helped to introduce the Industrial Revolution to the United States. Sometime around 1802 Eli Terry converted an existing grain mill’s water wheel into a power source for his factory. A short time later he created jigs for manufacturing standardized clock parts, ultimately manufacturing 200 clocks per year. Meanwhile Europeans did not utilize the uniformity principle (standardization of parts) until the mid-19th century. Eli Terry is considered to be “The Father” of clock manufacturing not only in the United States but throughout the world.

In 1807 Eli Terry sold his first water-powered shop to one of his apprentices, Heman Clark (1783-1838) and established a new factory again powered by water. Meanwhile, in 1806 he had accepted an order for 4,000 tall case clock movements as well as experienced the ridicule of his peers. The mechanisms were to be produced over a period of three years in a time where a single clock maker’s output was at most ten clocks per year. Initially Eli Terry perfected his mass production techniques, producing just one quarter of the contract during the first two years. However, in the last year of the contract the factory produced the remaining 3,000 clock mechanisms. These mechanisms sold for $4 each and were controlled by a thirty-hour wooden works with a seconds pendulum and came with a dial and hands.

The principles of a pendulum were discovered by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1602 and the natural period of a pendulum made it a perfect devise for controlling a timepiece. Galileo himself developed a metronome for musicians and just about a half century later, in 1656, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) invented the pendulum clock which was a leap forward in accuracy over existing timepieces. By 1670, the tall case clock emerged as the most accurate pendulum clock. Early American clockmakers based their tall case clocks on a seconds pendulum. This pendulum requires two seconds to swing, one second to the left followed by one second to the right, allowing tall case clocks to generate a soothing “tick” at each passing second.

While Eli Terry was working on automation techniques for mass producing clock mechanisms, he also experimented with new mechanism designs based on a half-second pendulum. A half-second pendulum would be physically shorter than the long length and tall case needed for a seconds pendulum. The clock movements themselves were similar except that a seconds pendulum needed an escapement wheel with 30 teeth while the half-seconds escapement needed 60 teeth. This early tinkering with half-second pendulums eventually led to Terry’s introduction of smaller clocks.

In 1811 Terry sold his successful enterprise to now iconic clockmakers Seth Thomas (1785–1859) and Silas Hoadley (1786-1870). Eli Terry then turned his attention to the development of a small clock that could sit on a shelf, eventually called shelf clocks. Prior to the invention of the shelf clocks, tall clocks sat on the floor and other clocks hung on the wall. Eli Terry designed his famous weight-driven pillar and scroll clock with a wooden mechanism. It was an engineering challenge to achieve the proper ratio of weights to height of the clock for the mechanism to keep proper time. He began commercial production of his clock in 1814 and received a patent for “Pillar and Scroll Top Case” in 1816. In 1860 Chauncey Jerome (1793–1868), another of the great early American clock makers, stated in his book "American Clock Making" that Eli Terry’s clock “completely revolutionised the whole business. The making of the old-fashioned hang-up wood clock passed out of existence.” Competitors quickly copied Terry’s design and reproduction pillar and scroll clocks with modern mechanisms are produced even today.

In 1814 Eli Terry brought two of his sons into the business and Eli Terry Jr. became a renowned clockmaker in his own right. Even though wooden clock mechanisms were subject to inaccuracies in time-keeping due to gear wear and wood swelling problems, Terry’s pillar and scroll clocks remained unchanged for 25 years and continued to sell well. By 1837 brass sheet metal arrived on the supply market and American clockmakers began designing clock mechanisms with the newly available material. Thus the Connecticut clocks evolved from all cast brass works to wooden works and finally to brass sheet metal. Eli Terry’s basic clock design centered on two principles: the verge (what controls the rate at which the gears turn) is attached by a metal pin inserted into a short arm and the works that control the dial are found between the plates. This design was amenable to both wooden and metal clock mechanisms.

Meanwhile, American pioneers began their trek ever westward. During the 1840s new territories opened up in what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Enterprising peddlers carried sturdy American-made shelf clocks with wooden works from Connecticut to the new settlements.

While Eli Terry is most famous for mass produced clocks, he did manufacture fine regulators that were used as timekeeping standards for other clockmakers. He also designed and built municipal tower clocks. He retired in 1852, leaving the business to his sons. Upscale collectors prize early Eli Terry pillar and scroll clocks, which can sell for $2,000 and up. Mass produced pillar and scroll clocks from the later 1800s are available for around $200.

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