Today in 1797, an inventor, entrepreneur, and future-famous clock maker residing in the two-year-old manufacturing town of Plymouth received the first clock-making patent ever issued in the United States. That patent launched an incredible career in manufacturing that helped make Connecticut the epicenter of quality clock manufacturing for the duration of the 19th century, and changed the way the average American measured their moments.
Born in the eastern division of Windsor in 1772, Eli Terry displayed an aptitude for all things mechanical at an early age, and apprenticed himself to a local clock-maker as a young teenager before opening his own clock-making business at the age of 21. Four years later, he successfully applied for a patent for his clock-making design, and went on to secure a total of 10 patents during his lifetime. Not long after receiving his first patent, Terry began perfecting a system of interchangeable parts for his clocks, becoming a pioneer in the mass-manufacturing movement during the earliest years of the American industrial revolution. In 1806, Eli Terry stunned his investors by completing a massive order of 4,000 clocks in only three years’ time using his new system of mass-manufacturing — a feat that could have taken decades using traditional clock-making methods.
In addition to sparking a revolution in American precision manufacturing, Terry trained several protegees that went on to become prolific clock-makers themselves — the most famous being Seth Thomas. Terry also changed the way everyday Americans kept track of time and decorated their homes with his invention of the shelf clock, designed with small enough parts to fit neatly on a fireplace mantle. While tall-case clocks were typically luxuries that only the wealthy could afford, Terry’s shelf clocks were small, fashionable, and modestly priced, allowing thousands of American families access to quality timepieces. Many of these early shelf clocks became heirlooms, and Eli Terry clocks remain highly sought-after pieces of early Americana to this day. One of Connecticut’s finest innovators became one step closer to forever changing the way Americans measured their moments — today in Connecticut history.
“April 13: Birth of Eli Terry, Inventor and Clock Maker,” Today in CT History
Alberta Eiseman, “Another Eli as the Hero of the Industrial Revolution,” New York Times
Mary Muller, “Marking Time: Early Connecticut Innovations Transform Clock Making,” connecticuthistory.org