Eli Terry

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Eli Terry Sr.
Eli Terry Senior.jpg
Eli Terry Sr.
Born April 13, 1772
East Windsor, Connecticut, British America
Died February 24, 1852
Plymouth, Connecticut, United States of America
Scientific career
Fields clockmaker

Eli Terry Sr. (April 13, 1772 – February 24, 1852) was an inventor and clockmaker in Connecticut. He received a United States patent for a shelf clock mechanism. He introduced mass production to the art of clockmaking, which made clocks affordable for the average American citizen. Terry occupies an important place in the beginnings of the development of interchangeable parts manufacturing. Terry became one of the most accomplished mechanics in New England during the early part of the nineteenth century. The village of Terryville, Connecticut is named for his son, Eli Terry Jr.


Terry was the son of Samuel and Huldah Terry, born in what is now South Windsor, Connecticut (at the time of Terry's birth, South Windsor was part of East Windsor, Connecticut.

He began his career as an apprentice under Daniel Burnap ("the forerunner of manufacturing"). It's also likely that he received limited instruction from Timothy Cheney, a clockmaker in East Hartford. Cheney specialized in the making of wooden clocks, which was fairly unusual at the time. The use of wooden components would show great influence in Terry's later career.

Terry's apprenticeship to Burnap ended in 1792, and he quickly established himself as both a clockmaker and a repairer of watches in East Windsor. His earliest clocks were fitted with silvered brass dials, which were engraved for him by Burnap. The movements of the clock were made of brass or wood, depending on the requests of his customers. Brass was more commonly used for movements, but it was also considerably more expensive and difficult to work with. In 1801, Terry was granted a patent on an equation clock. This was the first patent for a clock mechanism that was ever granted by the United States Patent Office.


Soon after 1802, Terry's production of wooden clocks grew considerably. Like other Connecticut clockmakers, Terry knew that apprentices could cheaply rough-cut wooden wheels for more skilled journeymen to shape precisely into clockworks, making clocks slightly more cheaply. And Terry was one of a number of Connecticut clockmakers who began to substitute water-powered machines for apprentices in the production of these rough-cut wheels. In 1802 or 03, Terry purchased a mill to produce wooden clock wheels, which still had to be finished by hand by skilled journeymen clockmakers. He purchased a grain mill and used the water wheel and main shaft to run saws and lathes, which helped speed the production of parts. He later created jigs and fixtures to produce a large number of interchangeable clock parts. This allowed for the rapid adjustment and assembly of clocks, freeing Terry from the task of fitting and modifying each individual piece of each clock. Using his own ingenuity and inventiveness, Terry was thus able to speedily cut wheels, pinions, and other important clock parts accurately and repetitively.

In the year 1806, Terry signed a contract to produce 4,000 wooden clock movements (other shops would make the cases). According to historian Diana Muir writing in Reflections in Bullough's Pond, at that time a skilled craftsman could produce six to ten clocks per year. In the third year he produced 3,000 wooden clocks. He sold his manufactory to two of his assistants Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley and retreated to his workshop to create the first machine in the world to be mass-produced using interchangeable parts.

Terry envisioned a new kind of clock, intended for mass production from machine-made parts that would come from water-powered machines ready to go into clocks without any additional hand cutting by skilled workmen. This would be a shelf clock, costing less than a tall clock. It would be made quickly and be easily repaired. Terry's further innovations included the design of an escapement with removable verge. This later became a standard design feature of American clocks for the following century. The mass-produced wooden clocks manufactured from interchangeable parts that poured from Terry's factory beginning in 1814 were the world's first mass-produced machines made of interchangeable parts.[1] As such he would mass market an affordable, complete cased-clock to American consumers. Terry's first clocks were offered in plain wooden box cases. Terry is also credited with the design of the pillar and scroll case. In his autobiography, History of the American Clock Business for the Past Sixty Years and Life of Chauncey Jerome, Terry's employee and assistant Chauncey Jerome, later a great clockmaker and owner of the world's largest clock factory, mentions building the first pillar and scroll in Terry's workshop with the master's design and under his direction. The pillar and scroll case provided a large, clear dial in a wooden case about thirty inches tall and six inches deep. The upper part was the clock face, the lower part was either a mirror or a picture back-painted on glass. Despite the small size of the clocks compared with traditional long case clocks, Terry was able to provide sufficient power through gearing for the clock to run a full thirty hours before it needed to be rewound. Anticipating a successful product Terry had the foresight to patent his arrangement of clockworks. At least five patents were issued to him through the years up to 1825 in order to protect his invention.

According to Diana Muir in Reflections in Bullough's Pond, within a few years, several hundred men worked in two dozen factories in the Naugatuck Valley and Bristol produced virtually identical Terry-style thirty-hour wooden clocks. Salesmen innovated such now-familiar marketing devices as installment-plan purchases and model changes of the cases to induce consumers who already owned a functional clock to buy a more fashionable model.

As noted Terry was granted many patents for his advances in clockmaking, most of which were immediately infringed upon by local competitors eager to participate in satisfying the demand for an affordable clock. Many competitors would note "patent clocks" on their label in order to prevent litigation. One lawsuit did develop as noted below.

Terry also produced wooden-movement tower clocks, such as those found in the steeples of churches and meeting houses, one of which is still operational today in the town of Plymouth.

Tower clocks[edit]

Eli Terry possibly made three tower clocks. His first, made entirely of wood, was a gift to the 1832 Terryville congregational church. Terry donated most of the funds to build this church, and his final donation was his famous clock tower movement. In 1964, the church burned to the ground, ironically, the only piece of the church spared was the clock dial, which was supposedly untouched by the fire. According to a local "The dial was spared, sold to an antique dealer, and is probably still in existence." Eli Terry donated another clock movement to Plymouth Congregational church, which was rebuilt from the beams of the old church in 1833, or 1834. Terry also donated most of the funds for this church. The Plymouth congregational church clock movement is a different design than the Terryville clock. The Plymouth clock is still working today, now powered by electricity (because the pendulum was inaccurate, and sometimes caused the clock to stop), and gravity (the clock has large weights with a multi-step pulley system that goes up into the steeple, back down through a shaft in the walls, past the meeting room, and below the basement by a few feet, a total of about 50 feet, to keep time for about nine to ten days), it is the last working Eli Terry tower clock, wound every Sunday, before, or after Sunday mass. It is believed to be the last working wooden movement tower clock. Terry also supposedly donated another movement to the Thomaston Congregational church. The Thomaston congregational church movement oddly consists of three metal gears, along with wooden gears in the mix. The Thomaston congregational church clock was removed in 1977, and was donated to the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol. There it was working for a number of years until recently; for it needs slight restoration. The Thomaston church clock was replaced by an all gravity metal escapement, built by Seth Thomas factory in the late 1800s. It is believed that Terry donated the Thomaston clock; however, Seth Thomas helped Terry in its design. The Terryville clock was a single movement clock, unlike the Thomaston and Plymouth clocks, which have a frame on top of the movement, to hold different shaped gears and fans, and rely on two movements, Plymouth has a wooden, and brass movement, Thomaston had a wooden, and a wooden movement. The new Seth Thomas church movement is visible to the public in the entrance lobby of the Thomaston Congregational Church.[2]


Between 1808 and 1833, Terry focused the majority of his time and effort on the production of standardized wooden clocks, which helped him accumulate a modest fortune.[clarification needed] By 1833, he was sufficiently satisfied with his material success. At this point, he abandoned involvement in quantity production, and returned to clockmaking as the world had known it before his innovations, focusing on the production of a few high-end special clocks and the development of original clock mechanisms. He also spent considerable time helping along the businesses of his sons. He continued with this small-scale clock production until his death on the last day of February 1852.

His achievements place him in an unusual position in the history of clockmaking, leaving him as one of the last of the clock craftsmen, but also as the first of the true manufacturers. His shop represents one of the last Connecticut clock shops (of which there were many) in which there was both pride in workmanship and a high level of personal skill and aptitude.[citation needed]

Terry's brother Samuel (1774–1853) was also involved in the production of wooden-movement clocks, and for several years he worked as Eli's partner, manufacturing improved pillar and scroll clocks after his brother's design.

Most of Terry's sons also became clockmakers. His son Eli Terry Jr. was the most famous, as the village of Terryville in Plymouth, Connecticut was named after him; he purchased the lock-making equipment that would eventually be used to form Eagle Lock Company, which for a long time was Terryville's biggest employer.

His son Andrew Terry began a very successful[clarification needed] malleable iron foundry that later became OZ/Gedney, which has since moved to Mexico. That business was in operation for more than 150 years just down the stream from Andrew's brother Silas's clock shop.

Silas had many financial difficulties in his time, but was eventually a founding member of the Terry Clock Company.


Eli Terry's Father was Samuel Terry. His wife was Eunice Warner, and they had several children including: Samuel Terry (named after his father) of Bristol, CT; Eli Terry Jr., who opened the clock factory with its own Waterwheel; Silas Terry; Henry Terry; and a daughter-in-law named Stepheny Terry (who married Eli Jr.)[3]

Bootleg Eli Terry Clock Designs[edit]

Eli Terry's success in mass-producing and selling an affordable shelf clock for the public drew much inspiration from other entrepreneurs in Connecticut and beyond. Immediately, Terry's former partners Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley began making similar clocks. Others in the Bristol and Plymouth communities manufactured movements, cases or other clock parts for others to assemble and sell complete clocks in order to compete with Terry. Terry was forced to continually update his patents. Paradoxically his updated patents became very narrowly described and this enabled competitors to make slight changes to their design and evade patent infringement. In 1826-7, Eli Terry filed a lawsuit in Litchfield district court against Seth Thomas for patent infringement. Judgement was in favor of Terry but it is unclear if he ever collected compensation. Contemporary historians believe the suit was staged between the two principals in order to dissuade others from competition, but it is unclear that this is correct since Terry, unlike Thomas, was the least interested in the business side of mass clock production.

As one example of the frenzy at the time to copy Terry's designs, Reeves & Co made clocks in the United States to the Eli Terry design. These clocks faithfully copied the scrollwork and wooden movement of the original Eli Terry clocks. However, since the designs of these clocks were infringements of the Terry patents, Reeves & Co. were forced out of business and were also forced to destroy their stock of unsold clocks. Very few genuine Reeves & Co. clocks still exist. One excellent example of an operating Reeves & Co. shelf clock is in the John Basmajian clock collection, in Altadena, California. Due to its rarity it is extremely valuable to collectors.


Eli Terry Elementary School, located only a few miles from Terry's childhood home in South Windsor, Connecticut, is named for the clockmaker. His likeness adorns a sign at the school's entrance.


  1. ^ Muir, Diana. "Chapter 10". Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England. ISBN 978-0-87451-909-9. 
  2. ^ American clock and watch museum, Plymouth congregational church, Thomaston congregational church, Plymouth historical society
  3. ^ http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~silversmiths/makers/silversmiths/107091.htm
  • Hoopes, Penrose R. Connecticut Clockmakers of the Eighteenth Century. Hartford, C.T.: Edwin Valentine Mitchell, Inc., 1930, ISBN 0-8048-1152-0.
  • Jerome, Chauncey, History of the American Clock Business for the Past Sixty Years and Life of Chauncey Jerome. New Haven, Conn., 1860
  • Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough's Pond; Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, 2000
  • Roberts, Kenneth D. & Snowden Taylor Eli Terry and the Connecticut Shelf Clock, second edition. Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Ken Roberts Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Smith, Alan, ed. The Country Life International Dictionary of Clocks. Middlesex, England: Country Life Books, 1979.
  • Eli Terry at Find a Grave