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The Invention of Clocks 
Part 3: Mechanical Pendulum Clocks and Quartz Clocks
pendulum clockPendulum used to keep time
More of this Time-keeping Feature
Part 1: Ancient Calendars
Part 2: Sun & Water Clocks
Part 4: Time Standards
Part 5: Time Scales & Zones
Related Quartz Clock Resources
Quartz Clocks and Watches
Time and Pendulums From Other Guides
It's About (German) Time
"How a Pendulum Keeps Time"
Online Pendulum

In Europe during most of the Middle Ages (roughly 500 to 1500 A.D.), technological advancement was at a virtual standstill. Sundial styles evolved, but didn't move far from ancient Egyptian principles. 

During these times, simple sundials placed above doorways were used to identify midday and four "tides" of the sunlit day. By the 10th Century, several types of pocket sundials were used. One English model identified tides and even compensated for seasonal changes of the sun's altitude. 

Then, in the early-to-mid-14th century, large mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of several large Italian cities. There is no evidence or record of the working models preceding these public clocks that were weight-driven and regulated by a verge-and-foliot escapement. Verge-and-foliot mechanisms reigned for more than 300 years with variations in the shape of the foliot. All had the same basic problem: the period of oscillation of this escapement depended heavily on the amount of driving force and the amount of friction in the drive. Like water flow, the rate was difficult to regulate. 

Another advance was the invention of spring-powered clocks between 1500 and 1510 by Peter Henlein, a German locksmith from Nuremberg. Replacing the heavy drive weights permitted smaller (and portable) clocks and watches. Henlein nicknamed his clocks "Nuremberg Eggs". Although they slowed down as the mainspring unwound, they were popular among wealthy individuals due to their size and the fact that they could be put on a shelf or table instead of hanging from the wall. They were the first portable timepieces. However, they only had an hour hand, minute hands did not appear until 1670, and there was no glass protection. Glass over the face of the watch did not come about until the 17th century. Still, Henlein's advances in design were precursors to truly accurate timekeeping. 

Accurate Mechanical Clocks

In 1656, Christian Huygens, a Dutch scientist, made the first pendulum clock, regulated by a mechanism with a "natural" period of oscillation. Although Galileo Galilei, sometimes credited with inventing the pendulum, studied its motion as early as 1582, Galileo's design for a clock was not built before his death. Huygens' pendulum clock had an error of less than 1 minute a day, the first time such accuracy had been achieved. His later refinements reduced his clock's errors to less than 10 seconds a day. 

Around 1675, Huygens developed the balance wheel and spring assembly, still found in some of today's wrist watches. This improvement allowed 17th century watches to keep time to 10 minutes a day. And in London in 1671 William Clement began building clocks with the new "anchor" or "recoil" escapement, a substantial improvement over the verge because it interferes less with the motion of the pendulum. 

In 1721, George Graham improved the pendulum clock's accuracy to 1 second a day by compensating for changes in the pendulum's length due to temperature variations. John Harrison, a carpenter and self-taught clock-maker, refined Graham's temperature compensation techniques and added new methods of reducing friction. By 1761, he had built a marine chronometer with a spring and balance wheel escapement that won the British government's 1714 prize (of over $2,000,000 in today's currency) offered for a means of determining longitude to within one-half degree after a voyage to the West Indies. It kept time on board a rolling ship to about one-fifth of a second a day, nearly as well as a pendulum clock could do on land, and 10 times better than required. 

Over the next century refinements led in 1889 to Siegmund Riefler's clock with a nearly free pendulum, which attained an accuracy of a hundredth of a second a day and became the standard in many astronomical observatories. A true free-pendulum principle was introduced by R. J. Rudd about 1898, stimulating development of several free-pendulum clocks. One of the most famous, the W. H. Shortt clock, was demonstrated in 1921. The Shortt clock almost immediately replaced Riefler's clock as a supreme timekeeper in many observatories. This clock consists of two pendulums, one a slave and the other a master. The slave pendulum gives the master pendulum the gentle pushes needed to maintain its motion, and also drives the clock's hands. This allows the master pendulum to remain free from mechanical tasks that would disturb its regularity.

Quartz Clocks

The Shortt clock was replaced as the standard by quartz crystal clocks in the 1930s and 1940s, improving timekeeping performance far beyond that of pendulum and balance-wheel escapements. 

Quartz clock operation is based on the piezoelectric property of quartz crystals. If you apply an electric field to the crystal, it changes its shape, and if you squeeze it or bend it, it generates an electric field. When put in a suitable electronic circuit, this interaction between mechanical stress and electric field causes the crystal to vibrate and generate a constant frequency electric signal that can be used to operate an electronic clock display. 

Quartz crystal clocks were better because they had no gears or escapements to disturb their regular frequency. Even so, they still relied on a mechanical vibration whose frequency depended critically on the crystal's size and shape. Thus, no two crystals can be precisely alike, with exactly the same frequency. Such quartz clocks continue to dominate the market in numbers because their performance is excellent and they are inexpensive. But the timekeeping performance of quartz clocks has been substantially surpassed by atomic clocks. 

Information and illustrations provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Commerce

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