Turret clock

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A turret clock or a public clock is a clock that is larger than a domestic clock and has a mechanism designed to drive a visual time indicator such as dials and or bells as a public amenity. Turret clocks specifically had mechanisms mounted high in a building often a purpose built tower such as churches town halls and other public buildings. Clocks were not referred to as turret clocks by clockmakers until recent times, often old clocks were recognised as turret clocks by their location.

A true turret clock has mechanical and latterly electrical power and therefore sits late in the history of timekeeping. The following timeline of clocks is not comprehensive but does indicate the placement of turret clocks.

drawing of a 14th-century clock


Modern tower clock movement

Water clocks[edit]

Water clocks are reported as early as 4000 B.C. In Europe, water clocks were used from around 1000 A.D. to around 1350 A.D.

Mercury clocks[edit]

Mercury clocks used a drum with several chambers that were connected through calibrated holes. A rope was wound around the drum with a weight connected to one end. The weight pulling down turned the drum, and the mercury in the drum chambers resisted the turning motion by slowly flowing from one segment of the drum to the next, thus inhibiting the movement of the drum and making it turn at a more or less constant speed. The movement of the drum could be used to measure time.

Verge and foliot clocks[edit]

The third generation of mechanical clocks had a verge escapement and foliot and emerged in the 14th century. In the second half of the 14th century, over 500 striking turret clocks were installed all over Europe of which exists some form of documentation. It is possible that more clocks were made. This was the first time public clocks became easy to maintain, as water clocks needed more or less constant attention, so only wealthy institutions with enough man power could maintain them. The verge and foliot mechanical clocks were relatively easy to maintain and so found their way into many churches, bell towers and town halls. This new technology spread quite fast (within a decade all over Europe).

Pendulum clocks[edit]

The fourth generation of clocks were mechanical clocks with a pendulum, which was invented in 1657 by Christiaan Huygens. As the pendulum was more exact than the foliot, some foliot clocks were converted to pendulum. Again, this new technology was adopted quickly throughout Europe, with many clocks being converted (e.g. Castle Combe Clock, Salisbury cathedral clock, ...).

Electrical clocks[edit]

Electric turret clocks and hybrid mechanical/electric and were introduced in the late 19th century.

Some mechanical turret clocks are wound by electric motor. These still are considered mechanical clocks.

Table of early public turret clocks[edit]

This table shows some of the turret clocks which were installed throughout Europe. It is not complete and mainly serves to illustrate the rate of adoption. There are hardly any surviving turret clock mechanisms that date before 1400, and because of extensive rebuilding of clocks the authenticity of those that do survive is disputed. What little is known of their mechanisms is mostly gleaned from manuscript sources.

The "country" column refers to the present (2012) international boundaries. For example, Colmar was in Germany in 1370, but is now in France.

Thirteenth century[edit]

The verge and foliot escapement is thought to have been introduced sometime at the end of the thirteenth century, so very few if any of these clocks had foliot mechanisms; most were water clocks or in a few cases, possibly mercury.

1283United KingdomDunstablePrioryhorologiumnot knownAnnals of the priory 1283 – Eodem anno fecimus horologium quod est supra pulpitum collocatum.Probably a verge and foliot clock because it was mounted over the rood screen, where refilling a water clock would have been difficult, it has been proposed as the earliest known mechanical clock.
1284United KingdomExeterCathedralExeter cathedral clocknot knowngrant made July 1284 to Roger de Ropford, bellfounder, to repair "orologium"if the 1284 clock was a verge and foliot clock is unlikely. The clock mentioned in the grant was probably a water clock. In 1423, a new clock was installed, which is probably the one from which remnants of the striking train can still be seen.
1286United KingdomLondonSt Paul's CathedralBartholomo Orologiario clocknot knownCompotus Bracini 1286probably a water clock
1288 (?)United KingdomOxfordMerton Collegenot knownbursarial accounts "Expense orologii"probably a water clock
1290United KingdomNorwichNorwich Cathedralnot knownSacrist's roll 1290 "In emendacione orologio"probably a water clock
1291United KingdomElyEly Abbeynot knownSacrist's roll 1291 "pro custodia orologii"probably a water clock
1292United KingdomCanterburyChristchurch cathedralnovum orolgiumnot knownlist of Prior Henry of Eastry's works "novum orologium mangum in Ecclesia"probably a water clock

Fourteenth century[edit]

During the fourteenth century, the emergence of the foliot replaced the high-maintenance water clocks. It is not known when that happened exactly and which of the early 14th century clocks were water clocks and which ones use a foliot.

The Heinrich von Wieck clock in Paris dating from 1362 is the first clock of which it is known with certainty that it had a foliot and a verge escapement. The fact that there is a sudden increase in the number of recorded turret clock installations points to the fact that these new clocks use verge & foliot. This happens in the years 1350 and onwards.

1304GermanyErfurtBenedict abbey St. Peter"Schelle"not knownconsecration of "Petronella" and "Scolastica"probably a mechanical alarm clock
1305GermanyAugsburgcathedralnot knownthe "Domkustos" E. v. Nidlingen donates to the cathedral a "good and well adjusted clock"probably a mechanical alarm clock
1306United KingdomSalisburySalisbury cathedralnot knowncomposition concluded 26/8/1306 "Before the clock of the cathedral had struck one no person was to purchase or cause to be purchased ....probably a water clock
1308FranceCambraiCathedralnot knownmention of a clock, which was mended and equipped with moving figures in 1348, and fitted with a strike and an angel in 1398
1309ItalyMilanchurch St. Eustorgionot knownmention of a metal clock, which was repaired in 1333 and 1555
1314FranceCaenchurch St. Pierrenot knownmention of a striking clock
1316PolandBrzegtown hallnot knownweights of the clock still present. New bell cast for clock 1370, replaced by new clock 1414
1322United KingdomNorwichNorwich cathedral prioryastronomical clockSacrist's roll of Norwich cathedral of 1322 to 1325 mentions the construction and installation of a clock which had a large astronomical dial and automata including 59 images and a choir or procession of monksearliest detailed account of the organisation and of the craftsmen and materials involved in such a project
1325–1343FranceClunycollegiate churchnot knownPetrus de Chastelux builds a new clock
1327United KingdomSt AlbansSt Albans Cathedralastronomical clockdrawingsEarliest clock for which there is detailed description of the escapement, this had a 'strob' escapement, a variation of a verge and foliot with two escape wheels.
1336ItalyMilantownpublic striking clock with 24 hour dialAnnales Mediolanenses AnonymiAccording to Bilfinger, this is the first mechanical striking clock and could have been made by de Dondi. This is the first time a clock is mentioned that strikes consecutive hours, e.g. once at 1, twice at two, etc. and that strikes day and night. As there are detailed descriptions of what the clock does, it was considered a novelty. Another candidate for the first mechanical clock.
1348–64ItalyPaduaCastle TowerAstrariumastronomical clock with strike, verge and crown balance wheelIl Tractatus AstariiGiovanni de Dondi
1351United KingdomWindsor castleGreat Towermade in London by three Lombards (from Italy) who arrived 8/4/1352 and left on 24/5/1352
1351ItalyOrvietoclock tower next to the cathedralstriking clock with jacquemart
1352–54FranceStrasbourgcathedralastronomical clock. Three dials: bottom year dial with saint days, middle hour dial, top hourly procession of 3 kings before Maria, at the top a crowing rooster.taken out of service in 1547
1353ItalyGenovastriking clock
1354ItalyFlorencePalazzo Vecchio
1355–71ItalyReggiostriking clock
1356ItalyBolognacastle towerstriking clock
1356–61GermanyNurembergFrauenkirchestriking clock with display of the prince-electors around the Kaisersubstituted in 1508/09 with the clock on the outside of the Frauenkirche
1359GermanyFrankenbergPfarrkircheastronomical clock with the three kings around the Virgin Mary
1359ItalySiennacity towerBartolo Giordi mounts a clock on the city tower
1361GermanyFrankfurtcathedralastronomical clockmade by Jacob, improved 1383, taken out of service 1605
1361GermanyMunichcity towermention of existing clock
1362BelgiumBrusselsSt Nicholas churchnot knownmention of a turret clock
1362ItalyFerraracastle towerclock mounted on castle tower
1362–70FranceParisTour de l'Horlogeverge and foliot striking clockFroissart's poem "L'Horloge amoureuse" mentions the clock. Drawing exists.a drawing of the going train shows a door frame construction. Built by the German Heinrich von Wiek.
1364GermanyAugsburgPerlachturmstriking clockclock was repaired in 1369 and a quarter strike was added in 1526
1365–67United KingdomLondonWestminster Palacenot knowna clock tower on the north wall at the end of the King's Garden opposite the entrance to the great hall was begun in 1365 and finished in 1367.
1366SpainToledocathedralgoldsmith Gonzalo Perez supplies a clock for the tower of the cathedral
1366–68SwitzerlandZurichPetersturmstriking clockMaster Chunrad von Cloten builds a striking clock for the Petersturm
1366United KingdomKentQueenborough Castlestriking clock
1367PolandWroclawtown hallmention of existing town hall clock
1368United KingdomKings LangleyKings Langley Manorstriking clockEdward III provided a patent giving safe conduct to three Flemish clockmakers. These people probably built the clock.after the expiry of the patent in 1369 John Lincoln was appointed as Royal clock keeper.
1368PolandOpavaTown council signs contract with master Swelbel to furnish a clock
1369GermanyMainzPfarrkirche St. Quentinstriking clock
1370FranceColmarcathedral towerstriking clock
1370PolandSwidnicathe town council engages the services of master Swelbel to furnish a clock, that is as good or better than the clock at Wroclaw.
1371United KingdomYorkYork Minsterstriking clockFabric Rolls of York Minster record purchase of a new clock made by John Clareburgh in 1371 or £13 6s. 8d.
1372BelgiumGolzinnecastlestriking clockLouis Defiens furnishes a striking clock for the castle
1372–73FranceStrasbourgcathedralstriking clockHeinrich Halder mounts a striking clock on the cathedral tower
1376BelgiumGhentBelfriedstriking clock
1376BelgiumSensa clock with several bells is manufactured
1376FranceBeauté-sur-MarnecastlePierre de S. Béate furnishes a clock for the castle
1377BelgiumDendermondebelfryJan van Delft manufactures a clock for the belfry
1377FranceValenciennestown hallthe town hall clock is replaced and fitted with 2 striking figures
1377ItalyVicenzatown hallstriking clockMaster Facius Pisanus manufactures a new striking clock for the town hall
1377BelgiumYpresbelfrystriking clock with several bells
1380GermanyBambergcathedralclock installed at the cathedral
1380FranceNieppecastlePierre Daimville engaged to furnish a metal clock weighing 300 pounds for the castle, which already has an existing clock
1382–84GermanyHamburgNikolaikirchestriking clockBlacksmith Schinkel furnishes a public striking clock for the Nikolaikirche
1383–84FranceDijonNotre-Damestriking clockthe clock taken from Courtrai in Belgium in 1382 is mounted on the tower of Notre-Dame
1383GermanyFritzlarmention of a turret clock
1383FranceLyoneglise St. Jeanstriking clockmention of a small striking clock at St. Jean
1384GermanyFriedbergstriking clockWernher von Ilbenstedt manufactures a striking clock
1384GermanyMindencathedralmention of the cathedral clock being repaired
1385SwitzerlandLuzernGraggenturmstriking clockBlacksmith H. Halder furnishes a striking clock for the Graggenturm and leaves a manual for the treatment of the clockThis is the first time operating instructions are written down. They clearly refer to a verge and foliot clock. the "frowen gemuete [happy/agitated mood]" is the foliot. "Als du das urleyn wiltt richten und das nider gewe uf ziehen oder ablan, so tuo das frowen gemuete von dem rade oder us dem rade, do es inne gat, und behab das kamprat sicher in der hant, oder das gewege verlieffe sich alsbalde, das das werg vil lichte brecht. Und so du das kamprat also in der hant hoebest, do mitte macht du denne das nider gewege abe lan, ob du die stunde wilt kúrzen, wilt du aber die stunde lengern, so zúhes uf, alles in solicher masse, das du nút ze vil noch ze wenig tuest und des nimmest du wol war am zalrade.

Wenne du ouch das lúte rat nider zúhest, so macht du das zal rat setzen uf wele stunde du wit, es sie uf i, ii, iii, etcetera. Und so das frowen gemuete ze balde gat, das dich dunke, so hebe die bli kloetzli vaste hin us an das redelin, und so es ze trege gat, so henke si hin in an das redelin, hie mitte macht du es hindern und fúrdern, wie du wit. Sunderlich darf es ze nacht wol fúrderndes, wand das werg den merteil ze nacht treger got denne tages. Der gewege nim beder war, so si sich ergangen habent, das si schiere nút me seilen habent, so zúch si wider uf, dis macht du tuon , wenne du wit." English translation: If you want to adjust the clock and put it forward or backward, disengage the foliot from the escape wheel and hold the escape wheel safely in your hand, or the weight will lose itself which might damage the clockwork. As you are now holding the escape wheel, use it to either let down the weight if you want to shorten the hour, or, if you want to lengthen the hour, pull it up, all in such a way that you are not doing too much nor too little and that you observe it well on the count wheel. If you also pull down the [lute] wheel, you can set the count wheel to whichever hour you want, be it I, II, III, etc. If you feel that the foliot is going too fast, lift the lead weights away from the wheel, and if it is too fast, move them towards the wheel, therewith you hinder or further it, as you like it. You might want to make it faster during the night, as the clock work goes for most of the night slower than during the day. Keep an eye on both weights, and if it happens that they have hardly any more rope, wind them up again, which you can do whenever you want to.

1386GermanyBraunschweigKatharinenkircheMarquard furnishes a clock for the Katharinenkirche. The cathedral already had a clock in 1346
1386United KingdomSalisburyCathedralSalisbury cathedral clockStriking ClockDeedmight not be the clock on display at the cathedral
1386GermanyWurzburgcathedralclock at the cathedral mentioned
1388FranceBéthunebelfrystriking clockThe citizens of Bethune want to re-construct the existing belfry and put up a clock. "... pour pouvoir reconstruire leur beffroi

qui etait a present moult demolis et venus k ruyne et en peril de keir (tomber) de jour en jour et en obtenir l'autorisation d'y placer une orloge pour memore des heures de jour et de nuit sicomme il est en pluseurs autres lieux et bonnes villes du paus environ".

We have a reference here on how common turret clocks have become – they refer to " a clock to remind of the hours of the day and the night as it is now common in other places and good towns ...". This is also a reference that shows that turret clocks struck the time day and night.
1388GermanyMagdeburgcathedralstriking clockmention of a striking clock at the cathedral
1389FranceRouenbelfrystriking clock with quarter strikeJehan de Felains paid 70 Livres for a clock with a quarter strike for the belfry
1391FranceMetzcathedralstriking clock with quarter strikeManufactured by Heinrich von Wieck
1392FranceChartresstriking clockclockmaker and blacksmith Philibert Mauvoisin instructed to make a striking clock resembling the one at the Paris castle
1392GermanyHanovermarket churchblacksmiths Meistorpe and Hans Krieten furnish a clock for the market church
1392–93United KingdomWellsWells Cathedralstriking clockif this is the clock now shown at the British Museum in London is questionable
1394GermanyStralsundNikolaikircheastronomical clockNikolaus Lilienfeld furnishes a clock for the Nikolaikirche
1395GermanyDoberanchurchastronomical clockan astronomical clock similar to the one in Stralsund is put up at the church
1395GermanySpeyerAltburgtorstriking clocka striking clock is reported at the Altburgtor and at the Predigerkirche
1398–1401GermanyVillingenastronomical clockMaster Claus Gutsch manufactures an astronomical clock after the Strasbourg clock.

It becomes apparent that even small towns can afford to put up public striking clocks. Turret clocks are now common throughout Europe.

No surviving clock mechanisms (apart from the claims from Salisbury and Wells) known from this era.

See also[edit]


  • C F C. Beeson English Church Clocks London 1971
  • Christopher McKay (Editor) The Great Salisbury Clock Trial, Antiquarian Horological Society Turret Clock Group, 1993
  • Alfred Ungerer Les horloges astronomiques et monumentales les plus remarquables de l'antiquité jusquà nos jours, Strasbourg, 1931
  • Ferdinand Berthoud Histoire de la mesure du temps par les horloges, Imprimerie de la Republique, 1802
  • Gustav Bilfinger Die Mittelalterlichen Horen und die Modernen Stunden, Stuttgart, 1892
  • F.J. Britten Old clocks and their makers:an historical and descriptive account of the different styles of clocks of the past in England and abroad : with a list of over eleven thousand makers, London, 1910
  • Ernst Zinner Aus der Frühzeit der Räderuhr. Von der Gewichtsuhr zur Federzuguhr München, 1954