By Stacy B.C. Wood, Jr.
How do you suppose our Pilgrim ancestors knew what time it was? Did they have wristwatches? How about grandfather clocks?
There was no such thing as a wristwatch in those days, although Queen Elizabeth I is said to have at times worn a small watch as a bracelet. In fact, the wristwatch didn't really come into use until the tile of the First World War around 1916. Watches before then were carried in a pocket and often attached to a chain to prevent theft.
During the 1600s, watches were very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford them. Clocks were also very expensive. In fact, neither watches nor clocks were very good timekeepers anyway. It wasn't until the invention of the pendulum by Galileo in the 1630s that a clock might be accurate to within minutes. Before that, a clock might gain fifteen minutes a day and lose half an hour the next. Because they were so erratic, there were no minute hands, much less second hands. As today, their dials were numbered I to XII, but obviously there were no minute markings. The space between each of the hour markings was marked in quarter hours, often with a fleur de lis or some other marking indicating the half hours. An example of the clocks available in the 1620s is one by the English clockmaker William Bowyer. It is thought to have been made around 1620. Because the clocks had no pendulum, there was no need for a case to protect it. Actually, there were no tall case ("grandfather") clocks until the thirty-nine inch pendulum was invented, followed by the invention of the anchor (recoil) escapement in 1671.
Before then the common household clock style was called a "chamber clock" because it was used to display time in a room and not on a tower or an outdoor wall. Although it had turned feet, it hung on an interior wall. The feet served more as decorative pieces similar to the finials on the top of the clock. Since the pendulum and anchor escapement had not yet been invented, it was "regulated" by a circular "balance" wheel that swung back and forth horizontally on the top of the clock, much like the balance wheel in a modern mechanical watch. The major difference was that there was no balance spring to control the wheel's oscillation. Each time it swung to the left, you would hear the sound "tick." Each time it swung to the right, you would hear the sound "tock." Just like the grandfather clocks of today, it needed a weight hanging on a cord to make the balance wheel swing. At least once a day you would have to pull the weight up.
An examination of the wills and inventories taken of the possessions of Plymouth Colony members reveals no watches or clocks. You won't see any clocks or watches in today's Plimoth Plantation. Just what did they use, then? They could have had sundials, which were commonly referred to as "dials." Shakespeare mentions as in As You Like It with the line, "and he drew a dial from his poke [pocket]." Myles Standish is believed to have had a pocket sundial. The gnomon or pointer was made to fold flat so it wouldn't cause wear and tear on both clothing and body. They were accurate enough for most people's needs, except, of course, when it was cloudy or at night. Edward Winslow eventually had a pocket watch. I have not been able to ascertain when the first mechanical clock was introduced into the Colony. Don't feel sorry for your Pilgrim ancestors not having a timekeeper. Why would they need one anyway? There was no train or plane to catch or TV show to watch. They could tell whether it was morning or afternoon by the position of the sun in the sky. A calendar would have told them the day of the week and a drummer or trumpeter would announce the time to start the walk up to the fort that served as their meeting house and church on Fort Hill (now called Burial Hill).
Many museums have examples of the early timekeepers of the 1600s, and many of those timekeepers can still work and will continue to do so for centuries to come. The largest clock and watch museum in America is the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Lancaster County, PA. If you ever visit, ask to see their 1635 clock and some of the old sundials and pocket watches.
SMDPA Former Governor Stacy Wood, a horologist and retired U.S. Naval officer, is the former director and curator of the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA, and author of three books and more than sixty articles about timekeepers. He is also a retired certified clockmaker and has had conferred upon him the title Star Fellow by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Inc., and Master Member of the Antiquarian Horological Society of Great Britain.