A cuckoo clock is a mechanical clock, typically weigh powered and pendulum
driven, that strikes the hours using small bellows and whistles that imitate the
call of the Common Cuckoo in addition to striking a wire gong. The whistle
pipe and bellows mechanism used to produce the cuckoo call was installed in
almost every kind of cuckoo clock since the middle of the eighteenth century
and has remained almost without variation until the present.
The design of a Black Forest cuckoo clock is now conventional. Most are
made in the shape of a rustic birdhouse or chalet to hang on a wall. The
wooden case is frequently decorated with carved leaves and animal heads.
Most now have an automaton of the bird that appears through a small trap
door while the clock is striking.
The bird is often made to move while the clock strikes, typically by means of
an arm that lifts the back of the carved wooden bird's tail. There are two kinds
of movement: a one-day movement and an eight-day movement. Some have
musical movements, and play a tune on a swiss music box after striking the
hours and/or half-hours. Musical German cuckoo clocks frequently have other
automata which move when the music box plays. Cuckoo clocks are almost
always a mechanical weight driven movement; a very few are spring powered
but they are rare and quite soought after. The weights are made of cast iron in
a pine cone shape. 1 Day Clocks need to be wound by pulling up the weights
each day. 8 Day Clocks need to be wound by pulling up the weights every 7-8
In recent years, quartz battery-powered cuckoo clocks have been available.
These do not have genuine cuckoo bellows. The cuckoo bird flaps its wings
as it calls to the sound of running water in the background. The call is an
actual recording of a cuckoo in the wild. During the cuckoo call the double
doors open and the cuckoo emerges only at full hour, and they do not have a
gong wire. One thing that is unique about the quartz cuckoos is that it has a
light sensor, so when you turn your lights off at night, it automatically turns off
the cuckoo call. The weights are conventionally cast in the shape of pine
cones made of plastic, as well as the cuckoo bird and hands. The pendulum
bob is often another carved leaf. The dial is small, and typically marked with
History, The first cuckoo clocks
In 1629 an Augsburg nobleman by the name of Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647)
penned the first known description of a cuckoo clock. The clock belonged to
Prince Elector August von Sachsen.
In a widely known handbook on music Musurgia Universalis (1650), the
scholar Athanasius Kircher describes a mechanical organ with several
automated figures, including a mechanical cuckoo. The bird automatically
opens its beak and moves both its wings and tail. Simultaneously, we hear the
call of the cuckoo, created by two organ pipes, tuned to a minor or major third.
In 1669 Domenico Martinelli, in his Handbook on elementary clocks Horologi
Elementari (1669), suggests using the call of the cuckoo to indicate the hours.
Starting at that time the mechanism of the cuckoo clock was known. Any
mechanic or clockmaker, who could read Latin or Italian, knew after reading
the books that it was quite doable to have the cuckoo announce the hours.
The first cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest
The first Black Forest cuckoo clocks were made in the middle of the 18th
century. The first cuckoo clocks had a hand-painted shield and a wooden
There are two main fables from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which
tell conflicting stories about the origin of the German cuckoo clock:
The first is from Father Franz Steyrer, written in 1796. He describes a meeting
between two clock traders from Furtwangen (Black Forest) who met a
travelling Bohemian trader who sold wooden cuckoo clocks. Both the
Furtwangen traders were so excited that they bought one. On bringing it home
they copied it and showed their imitation to other Black Forest clock traders.
Its popularity grew in the region and more and more clockmakers started
producing them. The second story is related by another priest, Markus Fidelis
Jäck, in a passage from his report "Darstellungen aus der Industrie und des
Verkehrs aus dem Schwarzwald" ("Description of Industry and Commerce of
the Black Forest"), 1810: "The cuckoo clock was invented by a clock-master
from Schönwald [Black Forest]. This craftsman adorned a clock with a moving
bird that announced the hour with the cuckoo-call. The clock-master got the
idea of how to make the cuckoo-call from the bellows of a church organ". As
time went on, the second version became the more popular, and is the one
generally related today.
Early cuckoo clock, Black Forest, 1760-1780 (Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Inv.
03-2002)R. Dorer pointed out, in 1948, that Franz Anton Ketterer (1734 - 1806)
could not have been the inventor of the cuckoo clock in 1730 because he
hadn't then been born. Gerd Bender in "Die Uhrenmacher des hohen
Schwarzwaldes und ihre Werke" wrote that the cuckoo clock was not native to
the Black Forest. Schaaf in "Schwarzwalduhren", provides his own research
which leads to the earliest cuckoos being in the "Franken-Niederbayern" area
(East of Germany), in the direction of Bohemia (a region of the Czech
Republic), which he notes, lends credence to the Steyrer version.
Although the idea of placing a cuckoo bird in a clock did not originate in the
Black Forest, it is necessary to emphasize that the cuckoo clock as we know it
today, comes from this region located in southwest Germany whose tradition
of clockmaking started in the late seventeenth century. The Black Forest
people who created the cuckoo clock industry developed it, and still come up
with new designs and technical improvements which have made the musical
cuckoo clock a valued work of art all over the world. The cuckoo clock history
is linked to the Black Forest.
At the beginning of the 19th century the now traditional Black Forest clock
design, the "Schilduhr" (shield clock), which had a painted flat square wooden
face, behind which all the clockwork was attached. On top of the square was
usually a semicircle of highly decorated wood which contained the door for
the cuckoo. There was no cabinet surrounding the clockwork in this model.
This model was the most prevalent model for the first half of the nineteenth
In the middle of the nineteenth century, there were also cuckoo mechanisms
combined with the "Rahmenuhr" (framed-clock). As the name suggests, this
clock consisted of a picture frame, usually with a typical Black Forest scene
painted on a wooden background or a lithograph. The cuckoo was usually
included in the scene, and would pop out in 3D, as usual, to announce the
1850 – The Bahnhaeusle clock,
a design of the century from Furtwangen
Railway-house clock by Friedrich Eisenlohr, 1850-1851; right: Kreuzer, Glatz &
Co., Furtwangen, 1853-1854 (Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Inv. 2003-081)In 1850
the first director auf the grandducal clockmaker school at Furtwangen Robert
Gerwig launched a public competition to submit designs for modern
clockcases, which would allow homemade products to attain a professional
appearance. Friedrich Eisenlohr, who as an architect had been responsible for
creating the buildings along the then new and first railroad line, submitted the
most far-reaching design. Eisenlohr enhanced the facade of a standard
railroad-guard’s residence, as he had built many of them, with a clock dial. This
wall clock became the prototype of today’s popular Souvenir cuckoo clocks.
By 1860, the Bahnhaeusle style had started to develop away from its original,
“severe” graphic form, and evolve toward the well-known case with three-
dimensional woodcarvings. 1862 Johann Baptist Beha started to enhance his
richly decorated Bahnhaeusle clocks with hands carved from bone, and
weights cast in the shape of pine cones. Even today this combination of
elements is characteristic for cuckoo clocks.
The chalet style originated at the end of nineteenth century. There are
currently three different basic styles: Black Forest chalet, Swiss chalet (with
two types the "Brienz" and the "Emmenthal") and finally the Bavarian chalet.
The basic cuckoo clock of today is the railway-house (Bahnhäusle) form, still
with its rich ornamentation, and these are known under the name of
"traditional". The richly decorated Bahnhaeusle clocks have become a symbol
of the Black Forest that is instantly understood anywhere in the world.
The centre of production continues to be the Black Forest region of Germany,
in the area of Triberg im Schwarzwald and Neustadt, where there are several
dozen firms making the whole clock or parts of it. The Chalet cuckoo clock is
often wrongly associated with Switzerland, as in the movie The Third Man. In
the USA, this error is probably due to a story by Mark Twain in which the hero
depicts the Swiss town of Lucerne as the home of cuckoo clocks.
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sound is said to have been invented by
Franz Ketterer in 1730 or 1738. As this
sound was easier to manufacture than
whistles or rooster crows, the idea
spread quickly through the clockmaking
industry. However, other sources say
the origin story is a legend, as Ketterer
real history is, the Black Forest is the
tradition home of cuckoo clocks, and is
still the area in which to purchase a
“real” traditional cuckoo clock. Image