April 13: Birth of Eli Terry, inventor and clock maker


Eli Terry, the man who revolutionized clock manufacturing and whose timepieces have been featured in millions of American homes, was born in South Windsor (then a part of East Windsor), Connecticut, on this day in 1772.

Eli Terry, Sr. (1772 – 1852)

Terry was a mechanical engineering prodigy who set his ambitions into motion at an early age, apprenticing himself to a clock-maker at 14,  opening his own business at 21, and obtaining the first clock-related patent in the United States in 1797 at the age of 25.  He revolutionized world manufacturing by demonstrating how clock parts could be produced faster and cheaper by machine than by hand, and helped earn Connecticut a reputation as an international leader in precision manufacturing in the process.

Before Terry introduced his ingenious method of using interchangable parts and machine tools to mass-manufacture clocks, all timepieces had been meticulously measured and assembled by hand, making them a relatively rare and expensive commodity.  Traditional workshops employing several craftsmen could only produce a few dozen clocks a year at most, whereas Eli Terry shocked the world in 1806 by successfully completing a massive order to produce four thousand clock mechanisms in only three years’ time.

Eli Terry (and generations of clockmakers who followed in his footsteps) affixed a proprietary label to the inner boards of his clocks that contained instructions and other useful information.

In order to make his manufacturing operations even more efficient, Terry built a series of factories in Plymouth, Connecticut on the banks of the Pequabuck river, which allowed him to utilize water power to drive his machinery.  Later on, many of Terry’s associates and business partners went on to found their own manufacturing companies. The most famous of his protégés was Seth Thomas, who founded another one of America’s most famous clock-making companies and cemented Connecticut’s reputation as the clock-making capital of the United States.

In 1814, Terry revolutionized the market yet again by producing a more compact clock mechanism that could fit inside handsome wooden cases small enough to place on a shelf or mantel.  These relatively inexpensive and space-saving “shelf clocks” made timepieces affordable and practical for scores of American families who couldn’t afford them previously.  Eli Terry’s engineering genius changed the way the world approached manufacturing and was directly responsible for bringing the modern timepiece into American homes everywhere.

Further Reading

Eli Terry,” connecticuthistory.org

Alberta Eiseman, “Another Eli as the Hero of the Industrial Revolution,” New York Times

Debbie Sniderman, “Eli Terry: Biography,” American Society of Mechanical Engineers