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What are Cuckoo Clocks?

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  • Written By: S. Mithra
  • Edited By: Lindsay D.
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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Cuckoo clocks, resembling chalet houses, use weights and a pendulum to keep time and sound out a cuckoo's call every hour through bellows. These carved, collectible clocks originated in the Black Forest region of Germany where talents of carpenters and clock makers combined to form the distinctive timepieces. Most cuckoo clocks have folksy mechanical parts, such as a bird popping out from a window or a lumberjack chopping at a tree.

During the long, snowy winters in the Black Forest of the 17th century, people could no longer farm, cut timber, or trade. In a striking convergence of different crafts, the knowledge of gear-driven clock making met the intricate carving of carpenters. Clocks, filtering around Europe, were just beginning to replace sundials as accurate methods of determining the time of day.

The first cuckoo clocks were created by Franz Ketterer in 1738 when he attempted to impersonate the distinctive two-tone call of the local cuckoo bird using bellows, rather than bells or chimes. He mounted the innards on a miniature, ornate wooden house looking like the surrounding chalets and thus began a long tradition of crafting cuckoo clocks in the region.

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One can still find antique cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest, but more commonly encountered are the modernized versions that use quartz crystals or springs to keep time. Original cuckoo clocks have connected hanging weights, usually in the form of brown pine cones. Over the course of a week, one weight lowers and the other rises, turning the internal mechanisms. To "wind" the clock, you return the highest weight to its lowest position.

Of course, the most notable feature of cuckoo clocks are sunny birds and their accompanying call. On the hour, and sometimes half hour, an upper window in the chalet bursts open, allowing a tiny bird to jolt out and chirp the proper number of notes to announce the time. Other mechanized parts may also surge into activity, such as two lumberjacks sawing a log, a farmer woman churning butter, a dog chasing a squirrel, a blacksmith hammering an anvil, or a lover appearing at a window for a serenade.

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