A History of Electric Clocks for the American Automobile
by Ray Brown
This article provides new historical material in an overlooked area of horology, the development of the electrically powered automobile clock. Electric automobile clocks have not been a traditional favorite of collectors but their development represents a remarkably innovative period of horology. Many of the pioneering companies had a fleeting existence and little information exists about their founders and innovations except for documents of incorporation, patents, and some surviving examples of their clocks. This article sheds some light on the early inventors and entrepreneurs with their vision of developing new traveling timepieces for the 20th century.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the automobile was to become one of the most, if not the most, influential factor in the advancements in technology that revolutionized ordinary life. Many technological innovations were more suited to the factories and industries and had only an indirect impact on the common man. However, a number of new inventions, the telephone, electric lights, the phonograph, and the automobile were entirely different and made new 20th century technology a personal experience. The automobile was unique as an enabling technology that replaced in short order the old ways of animal driven transportation.
With those changes came a desire to add conveniences and to personalize the car to the owner’s taste. Clocks were an accessory that were added early on and became a ubiquitous part of the car from its beginnings.
The first clocks were typically large watches of 8-day duration and were hand wound and driven by a spring. They performed well but were not the state-of-the-art for the new millennium. With the introduction of storage batteries and generators, a reliable source of electrical energy in automobiles was available and made them candidates for self-winding clocks. By 1915 William Thompson was manufacturing a self-winding clock for automobiles in Memphis, Tennessee and soon after the Hartford Clock Company had an electric clock ready for the Hartford Automobile Show in February of 1916
The story of the development of electric car clocks has been poorly documented with a common perception that electric automotive clocks did not come into common use until the middle of the 20th century. That may be because many of these early companies had short histories and were combined or absorbed by competitors. The Thompson Electric Clock Co., Hartford Clock Co, Keith~Landis, Sterling Electric Co., to name a few, are hardly recognized today. These companies and others, however, laid the foundation for a product that is now found in every car manufactured in the United States and the world.