Clockmaking, Early Modern Style

December 21, 2021 By Robin Rider

Our recent post about Special Collections hours, illustrated by a late 19th-century treatise on horology, prompted us to look at related titles in our holdings. They include William Derham’s modest volumes on the subject, amply titled The artificial clock-maker: A treatise of watch and clock-work, shewing to the meanest capacities, the art of calculating numbers to all sorts of movements, the way to alter clock-work, to make chimes, and set them to musical notes, and to calculate and correct the motion of pendulums: also numbers for divers movements: with the antient and modern history of clock-work : and many instruments, tables, and other matters, never before published in any other book.

title page of Derham's Artificial clock-maker (1734)
Title page of Derham’s Artificial clock-maker (1734)

The Royal Society’s “Science in the Making” series notes that “William Derham FRS (26 November 1657 – 5 April 1735) was an English clergyman, natural theologian and natural philosopher. He produced the earliest, reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound.” Well-connected, Derham also held the post of chaplain to the Prince of Wales, later George II.

Derham’s Artificial clock-maker was first published in 1696; Special Collections holds the third edition (1714) and the fourth (1734), the latter “with large emendations.” The Knapton publishing house reissued it as late as 1759. The edition of 1696 is available in HathiTrust, along with a French translation of 1731; EEBO and ECCO also contain various editions.

Front cover of Derham’s Artificial clock-maker (1734), from the Thordarson Collection. Inside the front cover is a bookplate reading “Erasmus Head, M.A. Prebendary of Carlisle.” Erasmus Head, represented in WorldCat by 2 sermons from the 1740s, also compiled manuscript commonplace books preserved as part of the Wellcome Collection in London, in which he took note of topics as diverse as “a vampyre in Hungary,” a girl possessed, a chameleon, and “an extraordinary sleepy person.” One of those manuscripts also bears a similar bookplate.

David M. Knight, in his entry for Derham in the Dictionary of scientific biography, sets Derham’s Artificial clock-maker in the context of English innovations in clockwork, describing it as “a useful manual containing some of Hooke’s ideas on clockwork, notably on the spiral spring balance, which Hooke claimed to have invented before Christiaan Huygens.”

Folding plate of clockwork from Derham’s Artificial clock-maker (1734).

The work, in line with Derham’s interest in sound, also included discussion of making chimes and setting them to musical notes, as shown here – choose your own ringtone!

Folding plate, complete with engraved errors (o’re for o’er — that is, over), from Derham’s Artificial clock-maker (1734). A version of the lyrics and music for the song “Such command o’er my fate” can be found through the National Library of Scotland.