A Wagon-Spring Clock

From its invention in the fifteenth century, the coiled steel spring became the preferred power source of European clockmakers. The spring permitted clocks to be small and portable, so most small European clocks and watches employed it. But the steel spring was an expensive import to America. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the introduction of the Bessemer process for mass-producing steel however, coiled steel springs were not produced in the United States. American clockmakers circumvented this limitation with ingenious weight-driven shelf clocks that were accurate, reliable, and compact. These they mass-produced and offered to ever-widening markets.
Joseph Ives, a Bristol clockmaker notable for his inventiveness but lack of business success, had first introduced wagon-spring clocks in the 1820s. They had conventional weight-driven brass movements, except for one feature: The strings that ordinarily would have held the weights were connected, through intermediary pulleys, to the free ends of what looked like a wagon-spring on the bottom of the case. This mechanism exerted a downward pull like the two weights.
When American clockmakers began to compete abroad with European clockmakers in the 1830s and 1840s, they were reminded of the advantages of spring-driven clocks. They vigorously explored various schemes for producing spring-driven clock movements without relying on imported steel springs. When one manufacturer in Bristol, Connecticut—Brewster and Ingraham—had considerable success with coiled springs made of brass, a local competitor, Birge and Fuller, resurrected Ives's "wagon-spring" design.
Birge and Fuller manufactured wagon-spring clocks from 1844 until 1847, when locally produced coiled-steel springs finally became available.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Date made
ca 1845
Birge & Fuller
Physical Description
wood (case material)
overall: 26 in x 13 3/4 in x 4 in; 66.04 cm x 34.925 cm x 10.16 cm
place made
United States: Connecticut, Bristol
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Domestic Furnishings
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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