Simon Willard clocks

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"Simon Willard" redirects here. For the colonist, see Simon Willard (first generation).

Simon Willard clocks were produced in Massachusetts in the Grafton and Roxbury, near Boston, by Simon Willard (April 3, 1753 – August 30, 1848), a celebrated U.S. clockmaker. Among his many innovations and timekeeping improvements, Simon Willard is best known for inventing the eight-day patent timepiece that came to be known as the gallery or banjo clock.

Early life[edit]

Simon Willard was of the fifth Willard generation in America. The original Willard family had arrived in 1634 from Kent (England), and they were among the founders of Concord, Massachusetts. Simon Willard's parents were Benjamin Willard and Sarah Brooks, who were Grafton natives. Like all Willard brothers, Simon was born on the family farm, in Grafton, on April 3, 1753. He was the second son; his brothers were Benjamin, Aaron, and Ephraim.

The farm, now operated as the Willard House and Clock Museum, had been built in 1718, by the Willards' third American generation. When Simon Willard was born, the house had just one room. The elder brother Benjamin, who was 10 years older than Simon, learned horology and opened a workshop adjacent to the house in 1766. It is presumed that the other Willard brothers were taught horology by Benjamin.

At age 11 Simon began to study horology, showing some inherent ability for it.[citation needed] A year later, senior Benjamin hired the Englishman Mr. Morris, who would teach horology particularly to Simon. Years afterward, Simon revealed that Morris didn't know much on the matter and his brother Benjamin had been his actual mentor. Just after another year, Simon built his first tall clock.

Like some other contemporary horologists, the Willards divided their lives between farm chores and the clock business. The horology became profitable, and Benjamin got a workshop at Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1767. Simon Willard managed his own business in Grafton; nowadays some clocks survive, reading "Simon Willard, Grafton."

At his workshop in Grafton, Willard studied the clocks which were repaired by him. He experimented intensively, to reduce those timepieces' parts which did the driving and the regulation. The smallest clock was the bracket clock, and Simon invented his gallery clock (which was patented later in 1802) copying this design. The next creation of Simon was the shelf clock, which was based on the gallery clock model.

A pioneer American industry[edit]

About 1780, Simon Willard moved alone to Boston's 2196 Roxbury Street (later known as Washington Street), into a four-room workshop. Soon after, Aaron settled in the same neighborhood, a quarter mile away. In 1784, Willard's workshop advertised: "Simon Willard opened a shop in Roxbury Street, nearly facing the road which turns off to Plymouth. There, Simon Willard carries on the clockmaking business, in all its branches." Like Aaron, Simon was still interested in perfecting the mechanism of the compact clocks. Nonetheless, since the 1790s, Willard's workshop built tall clocks in great proportion while performing general clock repair.

Both Simon and Aaron Willard combined 18th century knowledge of horology with then-contemporary industrial methods (pre-cast parts, template usage, labor division, standardized production, efficient management). Simon and Aaron Willard each developed an industrial zone, throughout a quarter-mile radius around their shops. By 1807, 20 factories in Boston were sub-contracted to supply parts or materials to the Willard brothers' businesses. This included mahogany (by some nearby mills), clock parts (amongst which 20 cabinetmakers were), gilder works, and other important artistic resources. Besides, both Willards resorted to the same providers and even to the same workers.

English suppliers were also used, as the early United States lacked vital raw materials, most particularly brass. Entire English clock mechanisms, whose performance was much longer with respect to the wooden ones of America, were assembled into the mahogany clock cases of Boston.

By their quality, the clocks of Boston became a sign of status. Americans were eager to buy clocks for parlors, offices, churches, or other public spaces. Simon Willard's clocks were the most famous in America. However, they were still expensive for the common people. Indeed, Simon Willard preferred to build sumptuous models which were full of artistic details (brass touches, mainly). In his belief, the clocks had to be just so expensive that, after acquiring one, the people may be still able to furnish their fine homes.

Simon Willard built most clocks through labored handicraft, and these devices were outstandingly precise. Particularly, Simon had quite trained hands and a great eye, filing cogwheels without using marks, whereas such mechanisms worked finely, with a month accuracy of 30 seconds. Although Simon's workshop produced fewer clocks with respect to Aaron's, nowadays Simon's clocks are sold by the highest bids in auctions, by their superior refinement. About 1810, both Simon and Aaron were producing clocks which belonged among the European clock mainstream.

Simon Willard interviewed his clients personally, evaluating each detail, and he ordered his technicians to check each device extensively, in the customer's own home. Into each clock, Simon included brochures, with instructions, a written guarantee, and the assertion of ownership. Further technician service was provided, as well. Although Simon knew little about advertising, he promoted his workshop through papers which were affixed inside the devices. He touted: "These clocks are made in the best manner. They run for a year and they don't wind up. We will give evidence that it is much cheaper to buy new clocks than to buy old or second hand clocks. Simon Willard warrants all his clocks." Nonetheless, on some occasions, the signature of Simon Willard was obviated from his clocks.

The clocks[edit]

A c. 1810 Simon Willard gallery clock in the lobby of the West Wing of the White House.

Longcase clocks[edit]

Simon Willard built longcase clocks which were quite sumptuous, being adorned with many fine details. These pricey models cost more than 60 dollars during their heyday, the 1790s, to put the amount into today's dollars, one dollar was an ounce of silver and in 2012 is worth over $40, so just in silver it is a few thousand 2012 dollars.

In the most expensive tall clock units, the mahogany cases had a mid-18th century English style and, bearing exactly similar English brass mechanisms all, their case complexity determined their final price. Distinctively for Willard's workshop, above the clock's top fretwork, three pedestals were, on which two spherical finials and a large bird figure were mounted. In addition, like Aaron, Simon built a glass dial door, whose top had a half arch shape. Onto the dial, celebrated Boston painters painted different motifs. Also, with few extra mechanism, amusing wheels with animated figures were featured on the dial, enticing the customer interest effectively.

During his career, Willard manufactured 1,200 tall models. However, after 1802, in which the gallery clock was finally patented, Simon spurned the manufacture of the tall clock, which was thereafter produced only by special commission.

Patent Timepiece, or "banjo" clocks[edit]

Simon Willard invented the Patent Timepiece, later called the "banjo" clock, at Roxbury. It was America's first commercially successful wall clock. It was an innovative design. It was the first American eight-day wall clock, the first American wallclock to have the pendulum suspended in front of the weight in the case, and the first American wallclock to have the weight attached to a pulley. The brass clock mechanism was reduced to a much smaller size, therefore saving brass which was in scarce supply in the early 19th century. Its shape was an imitation of the traditional wheel barometers. Early Patent Timepieces were built by hand, to order. By 1805 the clockworks, and standard cases, could be produced in quantity, reducing the cost of the clock.

Its small size meant a much lower price of 30 dollars, although this was still a large amount of money. Nonetheless, while American consumerism was arising, Simon's Patent Timepiece revolutionized the clock industry, becoming the most popular clock in the United States, whereas Europe lacked some counterpart of it.

Willard patented its creation quite late (1802) but most competitors of Simon dodged this document, reaping much money with their own versions of the Patent Timepiece. However, Simon never filed a demand against such usage. After 1802, in Simon's workshop, the smaller Banjo and shelf clocks were the bread and butter models while Simon pursued his other great projects, throughout the United States. Eventually, Willard's workshop manufactured 4,000 small timepieces (Banjo and shelf clocks).

Since its patenting, the Patent Timepiece remained with the same original design. Typically, they were surrounded by glass tablets, which were reversely painted with neoclassical motifs. Additionally, Willard expanded the Banjo clock in accordance with the patent, making much larger "seconds beating" regulators.

The shelf clock[edit]

Before creating the Banjo model, Simon designed a shelf clock (1780s, Grafton). It was similar to the tall model, with its original hood and base, but lacking its middle body. The shortened shelf clocks had lower prices, too, and they were commercially successful. Shelf models were produced until approximately 1830.

The lighthouse clock[edit]

A unique Empire lighthouse clock in mahogany case, at the White House library.

In 1818 he invented and patented a type of mantel clock, known as the lighthouse clock and regarded as the first alarm clock produced in America.[1] Originally known as the "Patent Alarm Timepiece", they have become known as lighthouse clocks (a 20th-century term) for their obvious similarities. The design of the cases were based on the Classical art then in vogue; Neoclassicism and Empire. Some of these clocks, however, are less formal and reflect the vernacular interest in painted furniture, particularly Windsor chairs.

It is worth mention, an unusual exemplary displayed in one of the bookshelves of the White House library, made by the clockmaker to commemorate the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States in 1824-25. A likeness of Lafayette appears in a medallion on its base.

Renowned work[edit]

United States Senate (1801)[edit]

For the United States Capitol in Washington, the Senate requested Simon Willard to build a large gallery clock. Subsequently, he was invited both to set the clock up and to show its working.

Eventually, this trip had particular importance because Simon Willard became acquainted with President Thomas Jefferson. After that they became close friends.

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1802)[edit]

Among their first correspondence, in 1801 Thomas Jefferson alerted Simon Willard that his banjo timepiece hadn't yet been patented. Subsequently, on November 25, 1801, Willard made his application to the US Patent Office. The patent was both granted and issued on February 8, 1802. It was signed by President Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Attorney General Levi Lincoln.

In subsequent years, Simon Willard visited Thomas Jefferson at his home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. There they held many conversations. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson invited Willard to chop a young tree down. Subsequently, Jefferson transformed it into a cane. It was given a silver mount that read: "Thomas Jefferson to Simon Willard, Monticello."

Old South Meeting House's Willard gallery clock, now at Old South Church.

Old South Meeting House[edit]

Minister Joseph Eckley and the congregation of Old South Meeting House in Boston, the site of planning for the Boston Tea Party, commissioned Simon Willard to build a carved and gilded gallery clock to hang opposite the pulpit on the balustrade of the room's south gallery. The clock was capped with a spread eagle, carved in high relief and gilded, and measures 32" in height. The clock was delivered c. 1805, and remained within the meeting house until 1872, when the congregation moved to Old South Church in Boston's Back Bay.

Harvard College[edit]

For 50 years, Simon Willard was responsible for the periodic maintenance of all clocks at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Additionally, he oversaw Harvard's management of its clocks. Willard presented two clocks to Harvard. One was a tall-case clock; the other was a wall-mounted regulator clock that was installed in a room near University Hall.

A particular incident relates to Harvard's Great Orrery which was malfunctioning. Many craftsmen had unsuccessfully attempted to repair it, until finally Harvard's authorities offered an important reward to Simon if he was able to fix it. For days, Willard analyzed the device. He fixed the orrery by drilling a hole and fastening a rivet. The satisfied authorities asked: "Now, Mr. Willard. How much do we owe you?" Willard simply answered: "Oh. About a ninepence will do, I guess."

The University of Virginia (1826)[edit]

In 1826, Thomas Jefferson requested that Simon Willard build a clock for the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. The clock was to be a turret one and would be placed into the university's rotunda. Jefferson provided all of the clock's plans and specifications. According to these plans, Willard precisely assembled all the clock's pieces. The clock was installed in 1827. Jefferson, however, did not live to see the operating clock because he died in July, 1826. In 1895 a blaze destroyed both the university's building and Willard's clock.

Former President James Madison (1827)[edit]

At his home, Montpelier, in Orange, Virginia, former President Madison received Simon Willard. Madison gifted Willard with a second illustrious cane. Its mounting was silvered, and it read "Presented by James Madison, Ex-President of the United States, to Simon Willard, May 29, 1827."

Carlo Franzoni's 1819 sculptural chariot clock, the Car of History depicting Clio, muse of history, recording the proceedings of the house. Fitted with a clock mechanism by Simon Willard in 1837.

United States Capitol (1837)[edit]

After an official request, in 1837 the last two of Simon Willard's important works were again destined for the United States Capitol. Although Willard was already 84 years old, he travelled to personally install both.

One clock was placed into the Old Senate Chamber but was later installed in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. The other was a bare mechanism, designed to fit into the preexisting case sculpted by Carlo Franzoni in 1819 and titled "Car of History"; it depicts Clio, the Greek muse of history in a chariot. It is located above the east entrance to the old chamber of the House of Representatives, now called National Statuary Hall. Both clocks are still operational.


The gallery, or banjo, clock had been invented years before, in Grafton, but its patent was issued in 1802. The original model had been called the Grafton wall clock. Later, it was also known as the Improved Timepiece. In 1816, its patent expired.

Immediately after arriving to Boston, Simon Willard developed a movable mechanism to turn meat on a spit, the roasting jack, which was specifically designed for outdoor fireplaces. For it, Simon reduced the traditional English Lantern clock, simplifying its components. Willard's clock jack was patented, on July 2, 1764, and the document was inked by John Hancock.

The third clock which was patented by Simon Willard was the Patent Alarm Timepiece, which was also known as the Lighthouse and which was similar to the English Skeleton Timepiece. To build a clock which might be amusing to be seen, Simon bared the clock off its case, surrounding it with a glass cupola. Such device would be a beautiful thing to be stared at in the morning so Simon added a waking bell, onto it. Simon patented it in 1819 and president James Monroe inked the document. However, the model was too expensive and, also, it didn't fit among other household furniture because of its large size. Simon manufactured about 200 clocks of these, but few exist nowadays.


Hannah Willard[edit]

Simon Willard married Hannah Willard on November 29, 1776. She was a 20 years old Grafton native. Their lone son was born in 1777, on February 6, and he was named Isaac Watts Willard.

Mary Bird[edit]

In 1787, Simon Willard married again, to Mary Bird, a 24-year-old Boston native. Of their sons, both Benjamin and Simon continued their father's craft.

Succeeding Willard generations continued successfully as horologists. Beginning in 1828, Simon Willard Jr. (1795–1874) apprenticed in horology at his father's shop; he subsequently established his own workshop in Boston. Also, he specialized in both watches and chronometers, while his foremost jobs were Harvard's astronomical clock and the astronomical regulator which standardized the time for all New England's railroads.

Last Years[edit]

In 1839, Simon Willard retired. He sold his business to Elnathan Taber, his apprentice. Furthermore, Taber received the business' name too.

On August 30, 1848, Simon Willard died in Boston. He was 95 years old. Because of his commercial traits, Simon finished his life with just five hundred dollars. However, simultaneously all other competing clock manufacturers had benefitted from producing the Banjo Clock massively, although the corresponding royalties were never claimed by Willard.


  • Nowadays, Simon Willard's clocks are recognized as American masterpieces. As such, they are avidly sought by both antiquarians and museums. In perfect condition, a Simon Willard's clock is usually sold from $50,000 up to $250,000.
  • The Willard brothers revolutionized clock manufacturing by both division of labor and by using multiple previously molded parts. However, it is commonly accepted that historically their clocks weren't definitively popular. Instead, Eli Terry popularized clock ownership, among common American people.


Willard House and Clock Museum[edit]

The Grafton farm which held the original Willard family's workshop is open to the public and has become a museum, the Willard House and Clock Museum, which exhibits over 90 original clocks and many Willards' heirlooms too.

Old Sturbridge Village[edit]

The J. Cheney Wells Clock Gallery is located at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The 122-clock collection ranges from 1725 up to 1825. Some pieces are valuated above hundreds of thousands of dollars. The collection features several clocks attributed to Simon Willard.[2]

National Watch and Clock Museum[edit]

The National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania, houses several Simon Willard clocks.

Dedham Historical Society[edit]

The Dedham Historical Society in Dedham, Massachusetts, owns a Chippendale brass-mounted mahogany astronomical wall clock by Simon Willard: Engraving date 1780-81; perpetual calendar begins 1780.

Simon Willard's Stamp[edit]

On January 24, 2003, with its American Design Series, the US Postal Service issued a commemorative 10 cent stamp which features a Banjo clock, thus remembering Simon Willard. The stamp featured an image of a Banjo Clock's dial, drawn by the artist Lou Nolan.[3]


  • Junior Daniel Munroe
  • Levi Hutchins
  • Abel Hutchins


  • A Study of Simon Willard's Clocks. Richard W. Husher and Walter W. Welch. Nahant, Massachusetts, 1980
  • Simon Willard and His Clocks. John Ware Willard. Dover 1968 edition
  • Elegant Faces & Mahogany Cases: Clocks By The Willard Family. Robert C. Cheney; Philip M. Zea. Old Sturbridge Visitor, Winter, 1992.



  1. ^ Bob Jackman, The Lighthouse Clocks of Simon Willard (2002): in Antiques and the Arts Online
  2. ^ "Early History of Old Sturbridge Village". Old Sturbridge Village. Retrieved 14 February 2013. 
  3. ^ United States Postal Service Stamp of Simon Willard's Banjo Clock

External links[edit]