How the Grandfather Clock Got Its Name

My Grandfather's Clock Originally called a longcase clock (also tall-case or floor clock), it is a tall, freestanding, weight-driven pendulum clock with the pendulum held inside the tower. The cases often feature elaborately carved ornamentation surrounding the clock face. The English clockmaker William Clement is credited with the development of this clock form in 1670.

Until the early 20th century, pendulum clocks were the world's most accurate timekeeping technology, and longcase clocks, due to their superior accuracy, served as time standards for households and businesses. Today they are kept mainly for their decorative and antique value.

If you were thinking that it got its name because you’ve never seen a grandfather clock in the house of anyone under the age of seventy, you would be wrong. The real reason these timekeeping devices picked up the grandfatherly nickname has nothing to do with grandparents. Here’s the common folklore about how they got their name..

In 1875, an American songwriter named Henry Clay Work was visiting England. He checked in to the George Hotel in North Yorkshire. In the hotel's lobby was a large pendulum clock. The clock had stopped long ago and just sat in the lobby collecting dust, serving no apparent purpose.

This unmoving clock fascinated work and he asked about its history. He was told by the proprietors that the clock had belonged to the inn's previous two owners, the Jenkins brothers, both deceased. It seems the clock had kept perfect time during their lives. But when the first Jenkins brother died, the clock faltered. The clock was said to have stopped completely dead -to the minute- on the day the second Jenkins brother had died. It stayed stopped, despite the best efforts of a host of repairmen.

The bemused Work thought it was a great story. He went on to write a song about the incident. In the song, he called it “My Grandfather's Clock.” It went like this:

My grandfather's clock
Was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half
Than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.

It was bought on the morn
Of the day that he was born,
It was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

The public went crazy over the song and "My Grandfather's Clock" went on to sell over a million copies in sheet music.

The previous term, the rather un-catchy "longcase clock,” was dropped almost immediately by the public. And the term grandfather clock became attached to the kind of clock that inspired the song.

Some clock lovers worry that with the advent of digital technology and atomic clocks, the old pendulum-swinging grandfathers may not be long for the current timekeeping world. However, despite it's lack of substance, H.C. Work's song lives on. In fact, it was recorded multiple times in the 20th century, as recently as 2004 by the music group Boyz II Men. It's a song that, like the grandfather clock, keeps on ticking.

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