April 13: Eli Terry, The Man Who Made Us All Clock-watchers

 

Eli Terry, the man who revolutionized clock manufacturing and whose timepieces became featured objects 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 clockmaker 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. In 1806, Eli Terry shocked the world by successfully completing a massive order to produce four thousand clock mechanisms in only three years’ time, thanks to his innovative manufacturing methods.

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 clockmaking 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 successful manufacturing companies. The most famous of his protégés was Seth Thomas, who founded another one of America’s most famous clockmaking companies and cemented Connecticut’s reputation as the clockmaking 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 both the way the world approached precision manufacturing, and how everyday Americans kept track of time in their homes. A timely revolution was first set in motion, today in Connecticut history.

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