When I was growing up in Virginia, my parents would sometimes bring my brother and me to the home of my father’s old mentor, a sailing captain who lived in an old house by a golf course. I was fascinated by this captain’s home. His wife kept marionette puppets, old wooden doll houses, house plants, and cats, but I was most intrigued by a wooden cuckoo clock.
When it chimed the hour, the little doors would pop open, and out came tiny painted carvings of two children in traditional German dress. The tiny wooden children rang their hand bells before retreating back into the clock. My young mind wondered what was on the other side of those doors. I wondered what kind of picturesque village lived inside that clock.
According to the Smithsonian, the cuckoo clock was probably invented in the Black Forest of Germany in the 17th century. A German clockmaker, Franz Anton Ketterer, was inspired by the technology of church organs and wondered if he could recreate it in the clocks he was working on. He had a vision that people would hear the beautiful chime of a bell when every hour struck.
His invention changed our relationship to clocks from a way to tell time to a way to express our artistic side. Cuckoo clocks are, in many ways, way more than clocks. They’re art pieces and music makers that add a touch of whimsical delight to our living rooms.
The science of the cuckoo clock
Just like a church organ, the coo-coo sound that rings from these glorious clocks is made by a system of bellows pushing air through wooden whistles to recreate the sound of the common cuckoo. According to Collector’s Journal, “the gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock.”
This mechanism has remained unchanged since the 18th century, but modern cuckoo clock makers have begun to take more creative license with their interpretation of the cuckoo. Some have a digital recording of an actual cuckoo bird singing. Some even include sound effects for “many of the popular automata found on mechanical musical clocks, such as beer drinkers, jumping deer, and even angry wives beating angry husbands,” according to Collector’s Journal.
The art of the cuckoo clock
Cuckoo clocks were originally called “artist clocks,” which makes sense once you realize how much creativity and artistry is involved. Throughout the cold German winters, clockmakers and artisans would throw fun-spirited competitions to see who could create the most outlandish, creative clock the world has ever seen. That’s how we’ve ended up with such beautiful and intricate designs that represent the flora and fauna of Germany’s Black Forest. Many cuckoo clocks are designed to look like rail houses, hunting scenes, tiny villages, or forest chalets.
Cuckoo clocks are still, 300 years later, very much in vogue, but we have given them a fresh, modern spin.