first Black Forest Cuckoo Clock was designed and made by Franz Anton
Ketterer in the small village of Schönwald near Triberg,
Germany, in the depths of the Black
Forest. Ketterer managed to reproduce the cuckoo's call
by the clever use of bellows producing two different sounds.
This ancient craft continued to develop, becoming soon
a flourishing industry. The poorly lit "cabinets" on attic
floors where watchmakers worked in the past have become light and
well-equipped workshops where clock movements and cases are manufactured
by upt-to-date methods. But the woodcarvings are still handmade by
skilled masters as they were 200 years ago. Old clocks, original drawings
of the first clocks etc. are still used and modified as patterns for
new models, but the cuckoo clock in its basic form is 200 years old
and has survived until now. The cuckoo clock symbolizes the past,
present and the future.
A cuckoo clock is typically a pendulum clock striking the hours using small bellows and whistles that imitate the call of the cuckoo bird and hit on a wire gong. The German Black Forest (Schwarzwald) is the birthplace of the cuckoo clock, which became a symbol for the region. Almost until the mid-17th century, sundials and hourglasses were the way of keeping time in this corner of the world. Clock making started in the Black Forest area around the year 1640 by replicating a timepiece brought back by a peddler probably from the land of Böhmen (today’s Czech Republic). Already by the beginning of the 18th century, clock making had developed into an industry, which would flourish in the following centuries. The invention of the cuckoo clock in the mid-1700s gave this increasingly thriving industry a new impetus. The clocks were made during the long winter months when the farms were snowed-in and sold by peddling "clock carriers" in the summer throughout all of Europe.
The first cuckoo clock dates back to the 1730s and was a product of the almost hundred years of clock making tradition in the Black Forest region. There are a number of different accounts, which tell conflicting stories about the origin of this timepiece. The most popular one generally related today credits the invention of the first cuckoo clock in about 1738 to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clock-master from the small Black Forest village of Schönwald near Triberg. Inspired by the technology in use for church-organs, Ketterer designed the system of small bellows and whistles that imitates the cuckoo’s call. The first model of a cuckoo clock was a lavishly decorated, painted wooden clock. It was composed of an almost square board for the clock face and a raised semicircle on top of the oblong. The cuckoo was located behind a small door in the semicircle.
Soon other clock makers in the Black Forest region began creating finely handcrafted cuckoo clocks of many styles with rich and varied carvings. The former wooden gears were also replaced with metallic clockworks, which increased the accuracy of the timepieces. By the middle of the 19th century two principal cuckoo clock forms had emerged. The “framed” clock had a strong wooden frame and a wide painted inner section to which the clock face was attached. It was customary to paint the wooden background with a typical Black Forest scene. The bird was situated in the upper section of the decorated surface and was occasionally included in the other decorative scenes. The “railway house” clock had a basic house-shaped form consisting of an isosceles triangle placed on top of a rectangle or a square. This type of clock was originally adorned simply with carved or painted ivy leaves or flowers that one would find outside a typical railway house in Germany at the time. After a while, the embellishments multiplied to include scenes from everyday life from the Black Forest.
The “railway house clock” form, called Bahnhäusleform in German, essentially represents the model from which most modern Black Forest cuckoo clocks originate. Today the casing of a cuckoo clock is conventional and is usually designed in the shape of a rustic birdhouse or a chalet. Most typical decorative elements are wine leaves, animals, woodland plants and hunting scenes. Some are ornamented with animated scenes characteristic of the traditional Black Forest such as dancing couples in traditional dress moving to music, a rotating mill wheel, or a farmer chopping wood. Most cuckoo clocks have an automaton of the cuckoo bird that appears through a small trap door when the clock is striking and vanishes behind the door after the gong stops.
Black Forest cuckoo clocks are almost always driven by a mechanical movement run by weights under the clocks. These are commonly in the shape of pinecones that have to be pulled up once a week or once a day depending on the model. Spring driven types of cuckoo clocks are quite rare. In recent years quartz battery powered cuckoo clocks have been developed. These do not have the genuine bellows and generate the striking sounds electronically and use a plastic animated bird with a recorded cuckoo sound.
Housed in beautifully carved wooden casings, the cuckoo clock survived until our day. It is yet in demand and symbolizes for many the past, the present and the future. A genuine cuckoo clock is not a mass production machine, but a still hand-carved work of art that can be treasured for generations.
„Biking & Walking in heaven“ along the
German clock route
The wide variety of the countryside harmonises well with the densely wooded hills of the region. In the old towns full of half-timbered houses, pub signs tempt visitors to all sorts of local specialties – clear spring waters, different sorts of schnapps, fine wines and real Black Forest Gateau. Festivals and events as well as numerous museums present local history and culture, the symbols of which –the “cherryhat” and the cuckoo clock – are well-known the world over.
The German clock route offers ramblers or cyclists
plenty of possibilities a route of visiting historical old towns,
typical Black Forest farms, the Gutach valley bridge, the protected
area Schwenninger Moos with the source of the Neckar River, the baroque
St. Peter church and Monastery, the waterfalls in Triberg, clock factories,
the largest cuckoo clock in the world in Schonach as well as the chance
to visit factories or pick up bargains, and of course last but not
least to enjoy the Black Forest hospitality.