Simon Willard

     Jeff Sexton
     jsexton@elgintime.com



From The American Horologist magazine, May, 1937
Simon Willard
Maker of Clocks No One Could Improve

One day, over one hundred and ten years ago, a man in his sixties was busily engaged in taking to pieces a very complicated French clock.  Another man stood by, watching and talking to him about a treaty of international importance that was then pending. Noticing that the man at work on the clock took little or no interest in what he was saying, he remarked, "You do not seem to be impressed with the importance of this matter." "Why, no," replied the clock man, "I have never studied political affairs and really do not understand them." "Why," replied the other with some impatience, " . . . every good citizen should be versed in politics." "Very likely said the clock man. "Doubtless every man should be learned and skillful enough to take up any branch of business that is offered to him." And so saying, he rose and prepared to depart. "Don't go," said the other man, "until you have put the clock together." "Oh, you can do that," the clock man replied. "But I cannot," admitted the other. "Ah," said the clock man, "you cannot put the wheels of a clock together, yet you expect me to know all about treaties. . ." The place where this little conversation took place was at Monticello in Virginia. The man who last spoke was Simon Willard of Roxbury, Massachusetts. His companion was Thomas Jefferson, formerly President of the United States.

Clocks and clock-makers are both equally fascinating subjects for study and few of the early Yankee trades in this country were more picturesque than the making of timepieces.

The manufacture of clocks in America began early in the eighteenth century, one of the first notices of a Boston clockmaker appearing in the Boston News Letter, October 6, 1707, and reading as follows: "This is to give Notice to all Gentlemen and others, that there is lately arrived in Boston from London a Clock Maker . . . at the Sign of the Clock Dial at the South Side of the Town House in Boston . . . Per James Baterson." By 1712 the variety of clocks was amazing. Thomas Bradley advertised for sale in that year: "30 hr. clocks, week clocks, month clocks, spring table clocks, chime clocks, church clocks, Terret clocks." It is a rare New England town that did not have its clockmaker who left examples of his work, but none of the towns had clock-makers who left the number or quality produced by the Willard family. In all there were nine of that name who were famous clock-makers, which will in some way explain why it is so confusing to hear mention of a Willard clock, and to go with the expectation of seeing "S. Willard" or "Simon Willard" lettered on the dial or glass of the case and then to find instead "A. Willard," "Aaron Willard," "Benjamin Willard," "Ephraim Willard," "Willard & Son," "Simon Willard, Jr.," "Benjamin F. Willard," "Philander J. Willard," or "Alexander T. Willard." However, a little genealogical study of the Willard families will reveal that it is not quite as complicated as it appears at first sight. For with the exception of Philander J. and Alexander T., who were of a different family of Willards, living at Ashburnham and Ashby, Massachusetts, all of the others were sons or grandsons of Benjamin and Sarah Willard of Grafton, who had, among their twelve children, nine boys, four of whom, Benjamin, Simon, Ephraim and Aaron, followed the clockmaking trade and yet who never worked together. In the second generation Simon Willard, Jr., and Benjamin F. Willard, sons of Simon Willard, and Aaron Willard's son of the same name, all followed the footsteps of their fathers, as clock-makers.

Of all the timepieces produced by these Willards, those made by the first Simon are the best known and regarded by collectors and clock authorities as the finest examples of early American clockmaking that have come down through the years.

Born in Grafton, April 3, 1753, Simon Willard left school at the early age of twelve, when his father apprenticed him to one John Morris, an Englishman, who was a journeyman clock-maker and is said to have known little or nothing of the art. There is also some evidence to show that young Simon really learned his trade from his brother Benjamin Willard. Never inclined to hard study, because of an irresistible bent for mechanical things, Simon Willard once in the business found himself in his natural element and before the end of his first year as an apprentice he had made with his own hands, without assistance, a tall, striking clock that was far superior to anything his master had produced. There are still a few clocks in existence that bear the mark "Simon Willard, Grafton," examples of his first products as a clock-maker. Simon Willard removed to Roxbury about 1780 and established his home and workshop there, where in a little house of but seven 1: rooms on Washington Street he did all v his work, made all his inventions, set up a all his clocks, and raised a family of , eleven children. It was in 1784 that Simon Willard 1 brought out his patent "clock jack" for t use in the kitchen in roasting meat. The clock-like mechanism was hung by a hook from the mantel shelf in front of the open fireplace with the meat placed on another hook at the end of a chain, so that when the machinery was wound up the meat was slowly rotated as it cooked. In 1801 he invented his "Improved Timepiece," receiving his patent for it the following year. This later came to be called the "banjo" clock because it bore a slight resemblance in shape to that musical instrument  It was an instant success, meeting with great public favor and fast superseding other types of clocks. These "Improved Timepieces" were perfect timekeepers and wonderfully simple in construction. Although hundreds of thousands of these clocks have been made since Simon Willards took out his patent, it is a curious fact that not the slightest improvement has ever been made upon the original that Willard produced so long ago. He did not realize the value of his invention and perhaps never would have taken out a patent but for the fact that he once happened to be in Washington to show the authorities how to run a clock he had made for the United States Senate. While there he met and talked personally with President Jefferson about his clocks and the President, sensing the importance of Willard's invention, advised him to take out a patent for it. This meeting developed into a very strong friendship between the two and Willard visited Jefferson several times at Monticello.

Yet in spite of his patent Willard reaped little benefit from his invention.  The clock-makers of his time copied his "Improved Timepiece" and everything else he ever invented, yet he would never prosecute them for infringing on his patent. Had he demanded his rightful royalties he would have been a rich man, but instead his way of punishing them was to refuse to speak to or even notice an offender, which was just what they wanted. Never a good business man, Simon Willard was content to stand upon his reputation waiting for business to come to him. He was very proud and jealous of his reputation as a clock-maker and he regarded that as far more valuable than the money he could have made out of his many transactions. During the course of his life he made 1200 eight day clocks, 4000 timepieces, besides the machinery for lighthouses, and repaired improved innumerable other clocks.

Simon Willard was not only an inventor with a genius for clock-making,  He was in addition a most wonderful workman and all the movements of his clocks show a nicety of finish peculiar to him. All of his material he imported d from England and he forged his steel, filed and hand polished his pinions entirely himself. His brass wheels he hammered down to the proper thickness and finished with the utmost care. In cutting his wheel teeth he did not mark out the  spaces on the blank wheel but cut and rounded up and finished the teeth as he went along, using his eye in spacing and always coming out as even and accurately as any wheel cutting machine could do in later years. Yet with all the infinite pains he took he could turn out an eight-day striking clock in what he called six ordinary working days; an ordinary working day to him consisted of from twelve to fourteen hours. The painting of dials was a separate trade and Willard employed others to do it for him.  Clock-case making was likewise a separate trade. He long had the glass fronts of his "Improved Timepieces" painted by an English artist at a cost of from ten to twenty dollars a pair. When the artist died he employed another to do his work. Willard got good prices for his clocks and they never cost less than $80. It was considered the proper thing for a daughter of Boston's best families to receive one of his clocks upon her marriage. These were called his "Gift or Presentation clocks" and they were the only clocks on which he used gilding.

In 1819 Willard obtained a patent for an alarm clock and while he never made many of them it was widely copied by other clock-makers. He also made the machinery for the early Revolving Lights on the sea coast. For fifty years he had charge of all the clocks in Harvard College and in 1829 Harvard passed a vote of thanks for his long ts service. In addition to the clocks already mentioned he made a large quantity of timepieces called Regulator clocks for banks, offices and observatories. Most 10 of the old Boston banks had one of or these. Willard also made Gallery clocks for churches, public buildings and Turret clocks for church steeples.

It was the custom of clock-makers each spring when the roads were passable to take a wagon load of clocks made during the winter and peddle them around the country, repairing and regulating other clocks that needed attention at the same time. Simon Willard's route always lay along the North Shore and he even traveled as far as Bangor, Maine.

There are a few points concerning Simon Willard's clocks that any collector should understand. His clocks always had brass works, never wooden. He put his name on his clocks in a running hand, "Simon 'Willard, Roxbury" or "S. Willard, Roxbury," never Boston. He never put his name on the dial of his timepieces except his Gift clocks which read "Made by Simon Willard, Roxbury." On some of his large clocks, when assisted by his sons, he would occasionally put "Simon Willard and Son" on the dial. He never used battle scenes as a design on the glass fronts of his timepieces, nor the American flag and eagle or a landscape. He used the acorn for the top ornament on his timepieces, never the spread eagle which was of a much later date. He never dated his timepieces. Many contemporary clockmakers even went so far as to put the name "Willard" on their dials as a bit of questionable but effective sales propaganda.

If you should have the opportunity to buy at a low price what seems to be a Simon Willard clock, don't grab it up blindly for it is extremely rare that genuine Simon Willards in the original state come on the market and when they do the price is sure to be a good many hundreds of dollars.

Simon Willard lived to the advanced age of 95 years and turned out some of his best work in the later years of his life. The Turret clock on the Old State House in Boston he made when he was 78 and the clock he made for the Capitol at Washington when he was 85 are as beautifully made as any of his earlier clocks. 









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