During the 17th and 18th centuries, Connecticut was at the forefront of innovation in the craft of clock making. No one had a bigger impact on the craft than Eli Terry.
Terry was born in South Windsor, CT in 1772. At the time, clock making was extremely labor intensive and master clockmakers were lucky to produce more than a few clocks a year. Terry would eventually bring mass production to the craft of clock making and revolutionize the craft, not just for the United States, but the world.
As an apprentice to Daniel Burnap, Terry learned about producing standardized and exchangeable parts out of wood to speed up clock production. These exchangeable parts meant that new clocks did not need every part fabricated. Realizing the potential to increase efficiency by making many of the same parts, Terry sought out ways to make the parts faster.
In the beginning of the 19th century, Terry purchased a water powered grain mill he adapted to cut wooden clock parts. He eventually created templates for these machines that allowed for the precise production of standardized parts, meaning they no longer needed a master clockmaker for finishing.
In 1806, Terry received a contract to build 4,000 clocks in three years. At the time, other clockmakers were only producing 10 clocks a year at most. Terry spent the first two years of the contract preparing his manufacturing facility to handle the production. He did not produce many clocks in the first two years. However, once the factory was at full capacity, it was able to produce clocks at unheard of rates. Terry fulfilled the contract on time producing approximately 3,000 of the clocks in the last year of the contract.
Shortly after this successful contract, Terry set out to create a new kind of clock that was specifically suited for mass production—a wooden 30-hour clock that utilized a half-second pendulum as opposed to the standard one-second pendulum.
Making a precise half-second clock out of wood was challenging, but it meant that it was short enough to fit on a shelf, unlike the typical one-second pendulum clock, which stood on the floor or hung from a wall. The clock’s wooden construction, as opposed to the brass half-second clocks, was a lot less expensive to produce.
Terry patented the clock design as the “pillar and scroll top clock.” Throughout his career, Terry obtained 10 patents for his innovations in clock making. He received the first patent for a clock in the United States—one of the first U.S. patents ever issued—which President John Adams signed.
In addition to his compact affordable clocks, Terry constructed two or three tower clocks that he donated to churches in Connecticut. The tower clock at Plymouth Congregational Church is the only one that remains in its original location and surprisingly it is still in use today.
A Lineage of Terry Success
In his later years, Terry focused on specialty clocks, which he only produced in small quantities. At this point, he was busy passing the torch on to his son.
Terry’s son Eli Terry Jr. was also a master clockmaker and a successful businessman. Terry Jr. founded the town of Terryville, CT, and built many of the houses in the town. He also purchased the clock manufacturing tools from Stephen G. Bucknall, who was the first cabinet lock maker in the United States.
The clock manufacturing tools were the basis of the Lewis Lock Company, which later became the Eagle Lock Company. When the Eagle Lock Company formed, Eli Jr.’s son James Terry became the president of the company. James Terry successfully ran the company, which became one of the largest lock companies in the world before it closed in 1975.
Hero of the The Industrial Revolution
Eli Terry’s numerous contributions to manufacturing and clock making in the early years of the United States cemented Connecticut as a leader of industrial ingenuity and manufacturing prowess. He was not just the father of clock making, Terry’s early use of mass production and his innovative techniques made him a hero of the industrial revolution.
- The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, “Eli Terry”
- Atwater, History of the Town of Plymouth, Connecticut, Forgotten Books, 2012.
- MiFio, Eli Terry, American Entrepreneur
- Wikipedia, “Eli Terry”