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Horologist Eli Terry & His Clocks


Eli Terry was born April 13, 1772, at East Windsor, now known as South Windsor, Connecticut. His knowledge of clockmaking was gained from Thomas Harland and the horologist Terry, sometimes spelled Terri, made his first wooden clock in 1792. It is still in going order, and the following note concerning it appeared in the Hartford Courant for November 19, 1896:

The personal property of the late James Terry of Winsted, Conn., president of the Eagle Lock Company, sold at auction recently. Among other things was this clock. His grandsons bid for it and it was finally sold to E. C. Terry for $1000.

In 1793, the next year after he made his first clock, Terry went to Northbury, then a part of Watertown, and commenced the manufacture of clocks. He married Eunice Warner of that place, and their children were, Anna, Eli (born June 25, 1799), Henry, James, Silas Burnham, Sarah Warner, Huldah, George, and Lucincla. Mrs. Terry died December 15, 1839. In November, 1840, Terry married the widow Mrs. Harriet Peck, and their two children were Stephen and Edwin. Terry died at the village of Terryville, on February 24, 1852.


The first clocks were made by Terry by hand. The machinery consisted chiefly of a hand engine for making the wheels, similar to those used by English clockmakers. Soon he conceived the idea of using water-power, and conveyed the water from "Niagara brook", which was across the street, to his shop.

The demand for clocks was so small that only three or four were commenced at a time by any manufacturer, and most of these were ordered beforehand by purchasers. In the reports of manufactures in Providence, Rhode Island, the Mechanicsˆ Association says:

From January to August, 1791, have been made six eight day clocks from $33.50 to $40. There might be made with the same hands three times that number. There is as many if not more imported from Europe than is made in this country.

In 1797 Terry took out what was apparently the only patent he ever did apply for, and he suffered the fate of Wedgwood, the great English potter, whose contemporaries took his inventions without any conscience whatever. The patent reads as follows;

To all to whom these letters Patent shall come
Whereas, Eli Terry a citizen of the State of Connecticut, in the United States, hath alleged that he hath invented a new and useful improvement in Clocks, Timekeepers and Watches, which improvement has not been known or used before his application; has made Oath, that he does verily believe that he is the true inventor and discoverer of the said improvement; has paid into the Treasury of the United States the sum of Thirty dollars, delivered a receipt for the same, and presented a petition to the Secretary of the State, signifying a desire of obtaining an exclusive property in the said improvement, and praying that a patent may be granted for this purpose. These are therefore to grant, according to the law, to the said Eli Terry, his heirs, administrators or assigns, for the term of fourteen years from the Sixteenth day of the present month of November, the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using; and vending to others to be used, the said improvement, a description whereof is given in the words of the said Eli Terry himself in the schedule hereto annexed.
In testimony whereof I have caused these Letters to be made Patent, and the Seal of the United States is hereunto affixed. Given under my hand at the City of Philadelphia this seventeenth day of November in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven, and of the Independence of the United States the Twenty-second.
By the President.
Secretary of State.
City of Philadelphia; to wit;
I do hereby certify That the foregoing Letters Patent were delivered to me the seventeenth day of November in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven to be examined; that I have examined the same and find them conformable to law. And I do hereby return the same to the Secretary of State within fifteen days from the date aforesaid, to wit; on the seventeenth day of November in the year aforesaid.
Attorney General.

The business of delivering the clock works was onerous and took much time. In 1803 Terry found that his clocks need not be delivered in person, and he began installing more machinery and water-power. At this time he conceived what was considered a foolish and gigantic scheme. This was to make clocks by the thousand. He was jeered at and ridiculed, and when it was known that he had contracted to make four thousand clocks in the next three years, his failure was predicted.

In 1807 he sold his water-power to Heman Clark, who had been an apprentice of his, and bought water-power and buildings at Greystone. The four thousand contract clocks were to be wood clocks, thirty-hour, with seconds pendulum, dial and hands included, for $4 each.

At this time, 1807, most of the clockmakers in this country made either the eight-day brass clock or the thirty-hour wood clock.

Both the thirty-hour wood clocks and the eight-day brass clocks had pendulums beating seconds, or seconds pendulums, as they were called. The few exceptions to this general rule were the timepieces made by Willard at Roxbury and brass clocks produced by two makers, one at Saleni Bridge, now called Naugatuck, and one in that part of Plymouth now known as Thomaston. These brass clocks made at Plymouth and Salem Bridge had an escapement wheel with sixty instead of thirty teeth to adapt them to a half-seconds pendulum, the cord passing upward and over a pulley on the inside of the top of the case and attached to the weight moving the whole length of the inside of the case. The plates for the frames of these clocks and the blanks for the wheels and other parts were cast metal. The pinions were of cast steel like those of English clocks.

The length of the cases for half-seconds clocks bears about the same ratio to the length of the cases for clocks with seconds pendulum that the length of the pendulums bear to each other. The name of "shelf clock" was applied to these clocks to distinguish them from clocks with seconds pendulums, the cases of which stood on the floor.

Although the Willard clocks will be spoken of later, it is well to say here that they consisted of the time-train similar to those in use in English brass clocks, with the omission of one leaf in the pinion on the escapement wheel arbor, the escapement wheel having an additional number of teeth. It was thus possible to use a pendulum shorter than the seconds and longer than the half-seconds pendulum.

In 1807, when Terry began to work on his contract for the four thousand clocks, the clockmaking industry was confined to the conditions described. The making of these contract clocks occupied three years, and Terry, whose inventive genius was never idle, conceived during this period the idea of making a thirty-hour clock with wood movement and half-seconds pendulum. It could of course be made much cheaper than the clock with brass works. Terry did not consider his first effort successful, and though he made several hundreds of these clocks and sold them, he discontinued making them after a year. Other clockmakers did not feel as he did, and continued to make and sell them some time after he had stopped their manufacture.

These clocks are seldom to be seen now. They had no dials, but the figures to indicate the time were painted on the glass in the front of the case. The front plate of the frame was open, and the movement was substantially the same as those of the thirty-hour wood clocks with a seconds pendulum, the escapement wheel having sixty teeth instead of thirty to adapt it to a short half-seconds pendulum. The cord passed upward and over a pulley on the inside of the top of the case, and down around a pulley attached to the weight and back to the top of the case, where it was fastened.

In 1809 Eli Terry, Seth Thomas, and Silas Hoadley commenced making wood clocks under the firm name of Terry, Thomas et Hoadley. The association lasted only a year, when Terry sold out his interest. Thomas and Hoadley continuing at Greystone, a village in the southeast part of Plymouth, while Terry moved to Plymouth Hollow.

It took Terry several years to perfect a wood clock which satisfied him, but in 1814 he had succeeded. This clock ran thirty hours, the construction was quite new, for both the time and striking trains had a greater number of wheels, and it was so radically different that it was substantially a new manufacture. The two inventions which made this clock such a novelty consisted in placing the dial works between the plates of the frame instead of between the front plate and the dial. The other novelty was the mounting of the verge on a steel pin inserted in one end of a short arm, a screw passing through the other end and into the front plate.

In the early wood clocks the pin was inserted in a button midway between the centre and the periphery. By turning the button the verge was adjusted to the escapement wheel.

Chauncey Jerome, who was certainly an authority on this subject, says in his "American Clock Making" that when Eli Terry began making these wood clocks he worked alone. "About the year 1800 he might have had a boy or one or two young men to help him. They would begin one or two dozen at a time, using no machinery, but cutting the wheels and teeth with a saw and jack-knife. . . . They were first marked out with a square and compasses and then sawed with a fine saw, a very slow and tedious process. Capt. Riley Blakeslee, of this city, lived with Terry at that time and worked on this lot of clocks cutting the teeth". This was the first lot of 500 clocks made by Terry in 1808.

In Henry Terry's pamphlet on "American Clock Making" published 1872, he says: "The statement that has been made in advertising circulars and other publications, that American clocks were made wholly of wood until a late period, is not entitled to credit; nor has the story that the wheels were marked on the wood with square and compass and then cut out with a fine saw and jack knife any better foundation. It is a traditional fabrication, a foolish story" He then continues: "As part of this history it should here be stated that Asa Hopkins, of the parish of Northfield, town of Litchfield, Conn., obtained a patent about the year 1813 on an engine for cutting wheels. This invention was for the introduction and use of three mandrels, by which one row of teeth, on a number of wheels, was furnished by one operation of the engine, a machine still in use, but superseded at the time by a new construction of engine with only one mandrel"

While it may be quite true that eventually the wheels were cut by machinery, the early wood clocks prior to 1808 were largely made by hand. The works distinctly show it, and the machinery in use for making cast brass clocks was of no use in making wood ones. In fact it is often overlooked both by writers on the subject and collectors, that as far as the mechanical part is concerned, the making of cast brass clocks, of wood clocks, or of sheet brass clocks are entirely separate industries.

It is commonly supposed that the wooden clock is exclusively an American production. In Smith's "Handbook and Directory of Old Scottish Clockmakers" he has this to say with reference to Anthony and Mathew Hopton of Edinburgh. They were "wooden clockmakers and evidently brothers, though occupying different premises, Anthony being located at the back of the Fountain well, while Mathew was in the Lawn-market. They were in business from 1799 up to 1817 or thereabout, and along with another maker they enjoyed a monopoly of the manufacture of these humble but useful articles here. Strange to say, the Hammermen never seem to have troubled them, their productions being evidently looked down upon; but it is certain that the poorer members of the community could not afford the price demanded for the long case clocks and would be content with a "Wag at the Wa." So these men supplied an article which must have had a ready sale. One thing in their favour was that the Government laid a tax on imported wooden clocks, and reference is sometimes met with in the newspapers of the day as to numbers having been seized from smugglers and destroyed".

In Lord Grimthorpe's "Clocks, Watches and Bells" he speaks with much scorn of American clocks, not the wood or cast brass ones, but those of sheet brass: "They have advanced considerably in appearance at any rate since the original Sam Slick form; and by the way, it seems that the original Sam Slick was one Eli Terry, whose name ought to be preserved in a book on clock making". Rather a cavalier way of disposing of so great a genius in clockmaking history.

But no matter what the foreign opinion of wood clocks was, their manufacture progressed in America. All Terry's fellow townsmen and neighbours who were in the clockmaking business immediately began to make these wood clocks, and the half-seconds pendulum clock made of cast brass was no longer manufactured.

In speaking of shelf clocks in his book "American Clock Making", published 1860, Chauncey Jerome says: "Mr. Eli Terry in the year 1814 invented a beautiful shelf clock made of wood which completely revolutionised the whole business. The making of the old-fashioned hang-up wood clock passed out of existence. This patent article Terry introduced was called the 'Pillar and Scroll Top Case'. The pillars were about twenty-one inches long, three-eighths at the top, resting on a square base, three quarters of an inch at the base, and the top finished by a handsome cap. It had a large dial eleven inches square, and a tablet below the dial seven by eleven inches" They were sold for $15 apiece when first manufactured.

In 1814, when Terry began to manufacture clocks in large numbers, he took his two sons Eli, Jr., and Henry and began to teach them the trade. The factory was at Plymouth Hollow near Terry's Bridge. In these same works Henry ferry continued to make clocks. When competition became too keen, he made here woolen goods. He died in 1877.

The clocks of this pillar and scroll pattern, typical also of American Federal furniture, made by Eli Terry and his sons and those who copied his designs, supplied the American market for twenty-five years. Little was done in export trade, for a sea voyage had a bad effect on wood works, and caused the clocks to become poor timekeepers. But about 1837, when the manufacture of sheet metal began, the clockmakers eagerly took hold of sheet brass for making metal works clocks. Clocks with wire pinions were much cheaper and more quickly made than wooden ones, so as wood clocks drove out the manufacture of cast brass clocks, so sheet metal drove out wood clocks.

These two inventions of Terry's which were to be found in the wood clocks were equally adaptable to cast or sheet brass clocks, and either or both of them are to be found in most clocks made in this country. That is, the dial works being placed between the plates, and the verge mounted on a short steel pin which is inserted in one end of a short arm. Nor has the use of these inventions been confined to America alone.

In "American Clock Making" by Henry Terry, he says: "The making of parts of a machine so that one part may be exchanged for a similar part in another machine is an American invention". But the name of the inventor is not known, though as early at 1807 American clockmakers were making the different parts of clocks to gauges, so that they were interchangeable. It must not be assumed that the Terrys confined themselves to low-priced wood or sheet metal clocks. They made high-class brass clocks which were sold to clock-makers as regulators, and cost from one to two hundred dollars. Eli Terry also made tower clocks. One of them was placed in the spire of the Congregational Church at Terryville, Conn.

He also made a tower clock for New Haven, which was placed on the Centre Church on the Green. As it had two dials showing mean as well as apparent time, it was the cause of much annoyance and controversy. Terry finally removed it. These church or tower clocks were made in three pieces, the timekeeping part of ordinary size and moved by a separate weight, and the dial wheels by another, while that of the time- keeping part weighed only three or four pounds. Church clocks constructed in this way were rendered as perfect timekeepers and as little affected by the weather as any house clock.

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