How Pendulum Clocks Work

Have you ever looked inside a grandfather clock or a small mechanical alarm clock, seen all the gears and springs and thought, "Wow -- that's complicated!"? While clocks normally are fairly complicated, they do not have to be confusing or mysterious. In fact, as you learn how a clock works, you can see how clock designers faced and solved a number of interesting problems to create accurate timekeeping devices. In this article, we'll help you understand what makes clocks tick, so the next time you look inside one you can make sense of what's happening.

Let's get started by taking a look at the different parts of a pendulum clock.


Pendulum Parts

Pendulum clocks have been used to keep time since 1656, and they have not changed dramatically since then. Pendulum clocks were the first clocks made to have any sort of accuracy. When you look at a pendulum clock from the outside, you notice several different parts that are important to the mechanism of all pendulum clocks:

  • There is the face of the clock, with its hour and minute hand (and sometimes even a "moon phase" dial).
  • There are one or more weights (or, if the clock is more modern, a keyhole used to wind a spring inside the clock -- we will stick with weight-driven clocks in this article).
  • And, of course, there is the pendulum itself.

In most wall clocks that use a pendulum, the pendulum swings once per second. In small cuckoo clocks the pendulum might swing twice a second. In large grandfather clocks, the pendulum swings once every two seconds. So, how do these parts work together to keep the clock ticking and the time accurate? Let's take a look at the weight, first.


A Weighty Subject

The idea behind the weight is to act as an energy storage device so that the clock can run for relatively long periods of time unattended. When you "wind" a weight-driven clock, you pull on a cord that lifts the weight. That gives the weight "potential energy" in the Earth's gravitational field. As we will see in a moment, the clock uses that potential energy as the weight falls to drive the clock's mechanism.

So let's say that we wanted to use a falling weight to create the simplest possible clock -- a clock that has just a second hand on it. We want the second hand on this simple clock to work like a normal second hand on any clock, making one complete revolution every 60 seconds. We might try to do that, as shown in the figure on the right, simply by attaching the weight's cord to a drum and then attaching a second hand to the drum as well. This, of course, would not work. In this simple mechanism, releasing the weight would cause it to fall as fast as it could, spinning the drum at about 1,000 rpm until the weight clattered on the floor.


Still, it's headed in the right direction. Let's say we put some kind of friction device on the drum -- some sort of brake pad or something that would slow the drum down. This might work. We would certainly be able to devise some scheme based on friction to get the second hand to make approximately one revolution per minute. But it would only be approximate. As the temperature and the humidity in the air changed, the friction in the device would change. Thus our second hand would not keep very good time.

So, back in the 1600s, people who wanted to create accurate clocks were trying to solve the problem of how to cause the second hand to make exactly one revolution per minute. The Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens is credited with first suggesting the use of a pendulum. Pendulums are useful because they have an extremely interesting property: The period (the amount of time it takes for a pendulum to go back and forth once) of a pendulum's swing is related only to the length of the pendulum and the force of gravity. Since gravity is constant at any given spot on the planet, the only thing that affects the period of a pendulum is the length of the pendulum. The amount of weight does not matter. Nor does the length of the arc that the pendulum swings through. Only the length of the pendulum matters. If you're not convinced, try the experiment on the following page!

Experiment Time

As we stated on the previous page, the only thing affecting the period of a pendulum is the length of that pendulum. You can prove this fact to yourself by performing the following experiment. For this experiment you will need:

  • A weight
  • A string
  • A table
  • A watch with a second hand (or a numeric seconds display on a digital watch)

For the weight you can use anything. In a pinch, a coffee mug or a book will do -- it doesn't really matter. Tie the string to the weight. Then suspend your pendulum over the edge of the table so that the length of the pendulum is about 2 feet.


Now pull the weight back about a foot and let your pendulum start swinging. Time it for 30 or 60 seconds and count how many times it swings back and forth. Remember that number. Now stop the pendulum and restart it, but this time pull it back only 6 inches initially so it is swinging through a much smaller arc. Count the number of swings again through the same 30- or 60-second time period. What you will find is that the number you get is the same as the first number you counted. In other words, the angle of the arc through which the pendulum swings does not affect the pendulum's period. Only the length of the pendulum's string matters. If you play around with the length of your pendulum you will find that you can adjust it so that it swings back and forth exactly 60 times in one minute.

(Note: If you want to be exactly accurate about the pendulum period, see this interesting article.)

Once someone noticed this fact about pendulums, it was realized that you could use the phenomenon to create an accurate clock. The figure below shows how you can create a clock's escapement using a pendulum.

In an escapement there is a gear with teeth of some special shape. There is also a pendulum, and attached to the pendulum is some sort of device to engage the teeth of the gear. The basic idea that is being demonstrated in the figure is that, for each swing of the pendulum back and forth, one tooth of the gear is allowed to "escape."

For example, if the pendulum is swinging toward the left and passes through the center position as shown in the figure on the right, then as the pendulum continues toward the left the left-hand stop attached to the pendulum will release its tooth. The gear will then advance one-half tooth's-width forward and hit the right-hand stop. In advancing forward and running into the stop, the gear will make a sound... "tick" or "tock" being the most common. That is where the ticking sound of a clock or watch comes from!

One thing to keep in mind is that pendulums will not swing forever. Therefore, one additional job of the escapement gear is to impart just enough energy into the pendulum to overcome friction and allow it to keep swinging. To accomplish this task, the anchor (the name given to the gizmo attached to the pendulum to release the escapement gear one tooth at a time) and the teeth on the escapement gear are specially shaped. The gear's teeth escape properly, and the pendulum is given a nudge in the right direction by the anchor each time through a swing. The nudge is the boost of energy that the pendulum needs to overcome friction, so it keeps swinging.

So, let's say that you create an escapement. If you gave the escapement gear 60 teeth and attached this gear directly to the weight drum we discussed above, and if you then used a pendulum with a period of one second, you would have successfully created a clock in which the second hand turns at the rate of one revolution per minute. By adjusting the pendulum's length very carefully we could create a clock with very high accuracy.

However, while accurate, this clock would have two problems that would make it less-than-useful:

  1. Most people want a clock to have hour and minute hands as well.
  2. You would have to wind the clock about every 20 minutes. Because the drum makes one revolution every minute, the weight would unwind to the floor very quickly. Most people would not like a clock that had to be rewound every 20 minutes!

So, what does it take to solve the winding problem? Read on...

Gearing Up!

The problem of having to rewind every 20 minutes is easy to solve. As discussed in How Gear Ratios Work, you can create a high-ratio gear train that causes the drum to make perhaps one turn every six to 12 hours. This would give you a clock that you only had to rewind once a week or so. The gear ratio between the weight drum and the escapement gear might be something like 500:1, as shown in the diagram below:

In this diagram the escapement gear has 120 teeth, the pendulum has a period of half a second and the second hand is connected directly to the escapement gear. Each gear in the weight's gear train has an 8:1 ratio, so the full train's ratio is 492:1.


You can see that if you let the escapement gear itself drive another gear train with a ratio of 60:1, then you can attach the minute hand to the last gear in that train. A final train with a ratio of 12:1 would handle the hour hand. Presto! You have a clock.

Now this clock is nice, but it has two problems:

  1. The hour, minute and second hands are on different axes. That problem is generally solved by using tubular shafts on the gears and then arranging the gear trains so that the gears driving the hour, minute and second hands share the same axis. The tubular gear shafts are aligned one inside the other. Look closely at any clock face and you can see this arrangement.
  2. Because all of these gears are connected directly together, there is no easy way to rewind or set the clock. That is often handled by having a gear that can be slipped out of the train. When you pull on the stem of a wristwatch to set the watch, that is essentially what you are doing. In the figure above, you might imagine temporarily removing the small black gear to either wind or set the clock.

You can see that, even though all the gears in a clock make it look complicated, what a pendulum clock is doing is really pretty simple. There are five basic parts:

  • Weight or spring - This provides the energy to turn the hands of the clock.
  • Weight gear train - A high-ratio gear train gears the weight drum way up so that you don't have to rewind the clock very often.
  • Escapement - Made up of the pendulum, the anchor and the escapement gear, the escapement precisely regulates the speed at which the weight's energy is released.
  • Hand gear train - The train gears things down so the minute and hour hands turn at the right rates.
  • Setting mechanism - This somehow disengages, slips or ratchets the gear train so the clock can be rewound and set.

Once you understand these pieces, clocks are a piece of cake!

Q & A

Here's a set of questions from readers:

  • Watches obviously do not use pendulums, so how do they keep time? A pendulum is one periodic mechanical system with a precise period. There are other mechanical systems that have the same feature. For example, a weight bouncing on a spring has a precise period. Another example is a wheel with a spring on its axle. In this case, the spring causes the wheel to rotate back and forth on its axis. Most mechanical watches use the wheel/spring arrangement.
  • What is the difference between a weight-driven and a spring-driven clock? Nothing, really. Both a weight and a spring store energy. In a spring-driven clock you wind the spring and it unwinds into the same sort of gear train found on a weight-driven clock.
  • What can you do to make a clock more accurate? There is an excellent book entitled "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time", by Dava Sobel, that discusses the creation of extremely accurate mechanical clocks to find a ship's longitude. Creating accurate mechanical clocks that can live on a ship (unlike a pendulum clock...) was a real challenge!
  • How does the moon phase dial on a grandfather clock work? The moon phase dial works just like the hands of the clock do. The minute hand on a clock moves at the rate of one revolution every hour. The hour hand moves at one revolution every 12 hours. The moon phase dial moves at a rate of one revolution every 56 days or so. The moon's cycle is 28 days, and the moon phase dial generally has two moons painted on it.

For more information on pendulums, timekeeping and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links