Lantern clocks

Brian Loomes Antique Clocks

Brian & Joy Loomes

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Antique Clocks


Collecting Antique Clocks A Beginner's Guide to Lantern Clocks

1. Balance wheel clocks - made between roughly 1610 to 1660 (and a bit later).

The first lantern clocks were made with what is called a balance wheel control, a circular hoop on top of the movement which swung back and forth as the clock ticked, the speed of the clock being determined by the period of swing. The only way to make such a clock go faster or slower was to have a heavier or lighter driving weight. These clocks were of short duration, and needed winding at least twice a day, i.e. every twelve hours, some every eight hours. Their timekeeping varied by as much as plus or minus fifteen minutes a day.

It is thought that no example of a balance wheel clock survives with its original balance wheel escapement, though some experts argue that literally one or two examples do survive. For all recognition purposes we can take it that virtually all were converted to some later form of pendulum control. The pendulum was first applied to clocks (newly-made clocks that is) in Britain in 1658. It follows that any clock made by a maker whose death was before 1658 must have been made originally with balance wheel control. All makers of lantern clocks can easily be looked up in the reference books which cover that period, principally my own book 'The Early Clockmakers of Great Britain', so checking on the known dates of a lantern clock maker could not be easier.

balance wheel diagram
Click for closer view

This conversion of old balance-wheel clocks to pendulum control was done both to improve the erratic timekeeping of a balance wheel clock and also the nuisance problem of the over-frequent need for winding, as pendulum conversion usually improved such a clock to once-a-day winding. These improvements were often carried out in the distant past, sometimes even carried out by the original maker of the clock in order to 'update' it with the newest technology - akin to upgrading a computer today by installing a bigger memory. Therefore we know that those lantern clocks one sees today with a balance wheel escapement have been restored back to balance wheel in modern times (the last fifty years?). This was regular practice forty years ago or so; it is not today. Today most collectors prefer to leave what was originally a balance-wheel lantern in its converted form of a pendulum lantern, usually a long pendulum with anchor escapement, as they take the view that this is a part of its historical development with the passage of time.

It is possible that some balance-wheel clocks were converted to short pendulum (known as a verge pendulum or bob pendulum) during the relatively short period when that was first introduced and before it was greatly improved upon by the long pendulum, i.e. between about 1658 and say 1680, by which latter date the long pendulum was well established. Those few cases which were so converted at that time, were almost always converted again later to a long pendulum, so that very seldom, if ever, is a former balance wheel clock seen today with a short (verge) pendulum.

Those balance clocks which have been re-converted to balance wheel are instantly recognisable by the balance wheel itself. But what about those which were converted later to pendulum - long or short? How can we recognise those as having originally been balance wheel clocks, when the obvious point of recognition (the balance wheel itself) is no longer there? Easy. All balance wheel clocks have the hammer positioned on the right - as seen facing the clock. All (virtually all) pendulum lantern clocks have the hammer on the left.

lantern clock of about 1630 by Luke Cocksedge top plate of the Luke Cocksedge clock
Lantern clock of about 1630 by Luke Cocksedge, made with balance wheel control. This maker died in 1652, which means this cannot have been made as a pendulum clock. Click for closer view. The top plate of the Luke Cocksedge clock, showing it to be an old re-conversion back to balance wheel. Click for closer view.

The reason balance wheel clocks had the hammer on the right was that they had two separate weights, one for going , one for striking. To make the single hand turn clockwise, it was essential for the going weight (closest to the dial of the clock) to hang on the left, the pulling end of the rope hanging on the right. The strike weight, positioned at the back of the clock, was hung on the right to keep the clock in balance on its hanging hook on the wall, because if that weight had also been hung on the left, the clock would have been over heavy on the left and inclined to skew round constantly to the left.

Each of the two main-wheels therefore (the lowest wheels) in both the striking and going trains had its individual ratchet to allow separate winding. (A 'train' is the term used for a set of clock wheels.) The presence of two separate weights today on a lantern clock would in theory indicate that it was originally a balance-wheel example. But when they were converted to pendulum, many balance clocks also were converted (by removing one ratchet, usually the rear, strike, one, and making that wheel into a fixed wheel) to a single continuous figure-eight winding rope, which was devised at that same time as the introduction of the pendulum, and this means they would today have only one single weight. So the fact that such a clock has only one weight today, does not necessarily mean that it did not originally have two.

These modifications were carried out to balance wheel clocks, usually carried out from the late 1600s and onwards, to upgrade clocks which were rapidly becoming obsolete by then, to keep them usable and make them as convenient in use as a new lantern clock being made at that time with pendulum control. These changes and modifications described above were normal practice and all lantern clocks made originally with balance wheel control went through these processes.

There is one small group of lantern clocks which contradict the above recognition notes about two weights and a right-hand hammer. These are those very few clocks by only a handful of makers in Lancashire who made lantern clocks with long pendulums, the first lantern clocks made there, between about 1680 and about 1700, which retained two separate weights for winding and therefore had the hammer on the right to avoid skewing. The reason they kept two weights is thought to be so that one could run such a clock without striking if desired, by simply not winding the strike weight.

One might assume that the making of balance-wheel lantern clocks stopped at once in favour of the pendulum versions, but it did not. Balance-wheel lantern clocks continued to be made, even though less accurate than the new pendulum ones, because they were slightly cheaper. Some customers were willing to sacrifice the greater accuracy for the lesser cost. So balance-wheel clocks can still be found dating from a few years after 1660, but they were now the exception, and an assumed closing date of around 1660-70 is not unreasonable.

This illustrated article is divided into several sections: click on each link to navigate through it.

Balance wheel clocks - made between roughly 1610 to 1660 (and a bit later).
Balance wheel clocks were all converted anciently, almost always to long pendulum (anchor escapement) but just occasionally to short pendulum (verge). Some were re-converted later still back to balance.
'Bob' pendulum lantern clocks - made between about 1660 and 1680, and sometimes later.
Bob pendulum clocks (verge) were mostly converted to long pendulum (anchor escapement). Some were re-converted later back to verge. A few retain their 'original verge' escapement.
Long pendulum lantern clocks with anchor escapement, from about 1680 to about 1780.
Long pendulum (anchor) clocks always keep their original escapement (except where converted to spring-driven clock, which are a quite separate category).
Lantern clocks converted to spring-driven mantel clocks.

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