The pendulum clock was invented and patented by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1656, inspired by investigations of pendulums by Galileo Galilei beginning around 1602. Galileo discovered the key property that makes pendulums useful timekeepers: isochronism, which means that the period of swing of a pendulum is approximately the same for different sized swings. Galileo had the idea for a pendulum clock in 1637, partly constructed by his son in 1649, but neither lived to finish it. The introduction of the pendulum, the first harmonic oscillator used in timekeeping, increased the accuracy of clocks enormously, from about 15 minutes per day to 15 seconds per dayleading to their rapid spread as existing clocks were retrofitted with pendulums.
These early clocks, due to their verge escapements, had wide pendulum swings of up to 100°. Huygens discovered that wide swings made the pendulum inaccurate, causing its period, and thus the rate of the clock, to vary with changes in the driving force. Clockmakers' realization that only pendulums with small swings of a few degrees are isochronous motivated the invention of the anchor escapement in 1670, which reduced the pendulum's swing to 4°-6°. This allowed the clock's case to accommodate longer, slower pendulums, which needed less power and caused less wear on the movement. The 'seconds' pendulum (also called the Royal pendulum) in which each swing takes one second, which is about one metre (39.1 in) long, became widely used. The long narrow clocks built around these pendulums, first made by William Clement around 1680, became known as grandfather clocks. The increased accuracy resulting from these developments caused the minute hand, previously rare, to be added to clock faces beginning around 1690.
The 18th century wave of horological innovation that followed the invention of the pendulum brought many improvements to pendulum clocks. The deadbeat escapement invented in 1675 by Richard Towneley and popularized by George Graham around 1715 gradually became standard in precision regulators. and is now used in most modern pendulum clocks. Observation that pendulum clocks slowed down in summer brought the realization that thermal expansion and contraction of the pendulum rod was a large source of error. This was solved by the invention of the mercury pendulum by George Graham in 1721 and the gridiron pendulum by John Harrison in 1726, allowing the construction of precision regulators.
Until the 1800s, clocks were handmade by individual craftsmen and were very expensive. The rich ornamentation of clocks of this period indicates their value as status symbols of the wealthy. The clockmakers of each country and region in Europe developed their own distinctive styles. By the 1800s, factory production of clock parts gradually made pendulum clocks affordable by middle class families.
During the Industrial Revolution, daily life was organized around the home pendulum clock. More accurate pendulum clocks, called regulators, were installed in places of business and used to schedule work and set other clocks. The most accurate, known as astronomical regulators, were used in observatories for astronomy, surveying, and celestial navigation. Beginning in the 1800s, astronomical regulators in naval observatories served as primary standards for national time distribution services. From 1909, US National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) based the US time standard on Riefler pendulum clocks, accurate to about 10 milliseconds per day. In 1929 it switched to the Shortt free pendulum clock before phasing in quartz standards in the 1930s. With error of around one second per year, the Shortt was probably the most accurate commercially produced pendulum clock.
Pendulum clocks remained the world standard for accurate timekeeping for 270 years, until the invention of the quartz clock in 1927, and were used as standards through World War 2. The most accurate experimental pendulum clock to date (2007) may be the Littlemore clock, built by Edward T. Hall in the 1990s.
More elaborate pendulum clocks may include these complications:
In electromechanical pendulum clocks the power source and gear train are replaced by a solenoid that provides the impulses to the pendulum by electromagnetic force and the escapement is replaced by a switch or photodetector that senses when the pendulum is in the right position to receive the impulse. These should not be confused with more recent quartz pendulum clocks in which an electronic quartz clock module swings a pendulum. These are not true pendulum clocks because the timekeeping is controlled by a quartz crystal in the module, and the swinging pendulum is merely a decorative simulation.
The pendulum swings with a period that varies with the square root of its effective length. The rate of pendulum clocks is adjusted by moving the pendulum bob up or down on its rod, often by means of an adjusting nut under the bob. In some pendulum clocks, fine adjustment is done with an auxiliary adjustment, which may be a small weight that is moved up or down the pendulum rod, or a small tray mounted on the rod where small weights are placed or removed to change the effective length.
By the end of the nineteenth century, materials were available that had a very low inherent change of length with temperature and these were used to make a simple pendulum rod. These included Invar, a nickel/iron alloy; and fused silica, a glass. The latter is still used for pendulums in gravimeters.
The escapement drives the pendulum, usually from a gear train, and is the part that ticks. Most escapements have a locking state and a drive state. In the locking state, nothing moves. The motion of the pendulum switches the escapement to drive, and the escapement then pushes on the pendulum for some part of the pendulum's cycle. A notable but rare exception is Harrison's grasshopper escapement. In precision clocks, the escapement is often driven directly by a small weight or spring that is re-set at frequent intervals by an independent mechanism called a remontoire. This frees the escapement from the effects of variations in the gear train. In the late 19th century, electromechanical escapements were developed. In these, a mechanical switch or a phototube turned an electromagnet on for a brief section of the pendulum's swing. These were used on some of the most precise clocks known. They were usually employed with vacuum pendulums on astronomical clocks. The pulse of electricity that drove the pendulum would also drive a plunger to move the gear train.
In the 20th century, W.H. Shortt invented a free pendulum clock with an accuracy of one-hundredth of a second per day. In this system, the timekeeping pendulum does no work and is kept swinging by a push from a weighted arm (gravity arm) that is lowered onto the pendulum by another (slave) clock just before it is needed. The gravity arm then pushes on the free pendulum, which releases it to drop out of engagement at a time that is set entirely by the free pendulum. Once the gravity arm is released, it trips a mechanism to reset itself ready for release by the slave clock. The whole cycle is kept synchronised by a small blade spring on the pendulum of the slave clock. The slave clock is set to run slightly slow, and the reset circuit for the gravity arm activates a pivoted arm that just engages with the tip of the blade spring. If the slave clock has lost too much time, its blade spring pushes against the arm and this accelerates the pendulum. The amount of this gain is such that the blade spring doesn't engage on the next cycle but does on the next again. This form of clock became the standard for use in observatories from the mid-1920s until superseded by quartz technology.