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"The Master Clockmaker" Joseph Ives of Connecticut

By Lockwood Barr

Hobbies - The Magazine for Collectors, January, 1939


      Clock movements have been driven by many things - water, sand, wind, weights, coiled springs ... and now electricity. But people, however, know that fine brass clock movements were once successfully driven by an ingenious mechanism which utilized the principle of the bow and arrow. It was a development of Joseph Ives of Bristol, Conn., sometime around 1860-1820 to take the place of weights, in common use in all clocks then made in this country. Several Bristol clock firms, working under agreement with Ives, produced clocks with what is now called the wagon spring driving mechanisms.

      Coiled main springs had been used in England and on the Continent for clocks, and watches during the 17th century. Because of the varying power of the spring as it unwound, various forms of costly and complicated compensating devices were needed. Because of simplicity, accuracy and cheapness, New England clockmakers were content to use weights until between 1840 and 1845 when methods developed to temper coiled springs in America.

      It would be interesting to know just what gave Joseph Ives his idea of using a bow shaped steel spring with multiple leaves - in other words, a miniature wagon spring. The function of such a spring on a vehicle was to cushion the force of blows from ruts and holes in the road - not to deliver a gradual steady flow of stored up energy. The bow and arrow has been found among all people. The long bows of his Norman horde made William, the conqueror of the English. The 13th century cross bow, with several flat steel leaves required winding gears and a crank not unlike the winding arbor and key of a clock. The small hard bow-drill has been an essential tool used in manufacture since antiquity by all peoples. A long flexible pole fixed at its large end was made to furnish power in many "home factory" operations. Placed parallel to the ground, the free end of the pole depressed by the foot and released suddenly would deliver a sharp blow. Or a cord attached to the small end of the pole and wrapped around a pulley with a ratchet on a shaft, would drive a lathe or other light machinery, if the pole were pushed down with the foot and released. There were many such applications of the principle ... any one of which may have given Joseph Ives his idea.

      Clockmakers up to Joseph Ives day, considered the clock movement a complete machanism unto itself. The power that drove the movement was derived from something separate from the movement ... something from outside to exert pressure - like the pull of the force of gravity upon the iron weights that hung below the movement. When coiled springs were first applied by the Connecticut clockmakers in 1840-1845, they were placed in flat hollow spools, below the movement and attached to the back of the case of the shelf clock. Cords wrapped aroung these spools were wound on to the winding arbors inside the clock movement, and these arbors were often in the form of "fusees" or tapered drums to compensate for decreasing the pressure as the spring unwound.

      The Ives Wagon Spring was also an outside mechanism and it should be studied as an attachment to the movement - not as a device incorporated into the movement. Wagon springs drove the movement 8-days; and, there exist some few 30-day wagon spring clocks built under the Joseph Ives patents. These later clocks are amoung the most interesting and unique developments of the Connecticut clock makers of the first half of the 19 century - yet very few people, even those well informed on clocks, know of their existence because examples are so rare.

Submitted by: Samuel Kirk (##)

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