What’s the deal with Black Forest cuckoo clocks, anyway?

Photo by: James O’Rear

I don’t know about everyone else, but when I think of cuckoo clocks, or more specifically Black Forest cuckoo clocks, I think of retirement communities and cartoons.  The retirement community probably comes into play because my grandfather was a woodworker, and I’ve always associated fine wooden objects with my grandparents, and the communities they lived in when I was a child.  The cartoons, on the other hand, are maybe easier to explain; simply put, I think I watched one too many old cartoons as a kid.  So all in all, Black Forest cuckoo clocks (or any other kind for that matter) don’t really piqué my interest, so to say.  But, being that we at germany-travel are an open minded, open hearted bunch, and that I’ve been living in Germany for exactly a year now, I figure it’s fair that this American gets familiar with least one (maybe slightly obscure) German original. As a totem for German history and innovation, there are actually few other objects that say so much about this great (and sometimes weird) country than the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  So, as I throw off the shackles of preconception, join me on a Black Forest cuckoo clock fact finding mission that turns out to be surprisingly fascinating, and undeniably impressive.

The Origins (or maybe not) of Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks

One of the silliest and most intriguing things about the Black Forest cuckoo clock story is the origin, or more specifically, the debate on the origin. So it goes that there are two main origin stories for the Black Forest cuckoo clock.  They both take place in the early 17th century, but while one story claims that it was a German invention, the other say that it was a copied design from a Bohemian craftsman traveling through southern Germany.  The first story, penned in 1810 by a priest, states that a gifted German watchmaker was inspired by a church organ to invent a clock with a small cuckoo bird to announce the hour. This story sounds all well and good, until we learn that Franz Anton Ketterer, the aforementioned gifted clock-maker, wasn’t even born when the cuckoo  clock was first invented (in the early 18th century), so that rather deflates that claim.

And on the other hand, the idea of a German craftsman buying and copying a Bohemian cuckoo clock is somewhat unbelievable as well, as there is no evidence of Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic and South-East Germany) ever having a significant trade or tradition of watch or clock making.  However, no matter the origin, the Black Forest, or Schwarzwald, region of southwestern Germany is without a doubt responsible for the development and popularization of the cuckoo clock.

How Do Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks Work?

On first glance, your basic cuckoo clock may not seem so impressive, but there is an astounding level of engineering that goes into that tiny bird counting out the hours.  Imagine, if the first Black Forest cuckoo clocks were inspired by massive organs in churches, the first clock-makers to craft cuckoo clocks had to harness, and scale down the bellows and pipes that usually fill an entire wall, into a small box that can easily fit in the home, and that’s not to mention it having to share space with the clock gears themselves. And these clocks were invented long before computer aided drafting, calculators and even penicillin.  If that’s not impressive, then I don’t know what is! If you’re still curious as to the actual mechanisms that go into classic Black Forest cuckoo clocks here’s a fun video that shows the inner workings of this type of historic timepiece.

Where to Buy Your Black Forest Cuckoo Clock

Photo by: North Coast Imports

As far as finding the perfect Black Forest cuckoo clock for you during your trip to Germany, it’s obvious in the name that you have to go to the source: the Black Forest.  Because the Black Forest area has such a long tradition of fine woodworking, and clock-making, it should be easy to find a well crafted time piece along your trip.  However, you should be prepared for a few things. First, these timepieces can be astounding, but also pricey.  Prices can range anywhere from under a hundred euros, to thousands.  Also, because these pieces are hand crafted, you should be prepared to take extra precautions when transporting it to your final destination.  More tips on buying and caring for a Black Forest cuckoo clock can be found here.

However, if you are prepared to hunt a little bit, and pack lightly, you should be able to find just the right Black Forest cuckoo clock for you.  Because of their popularity, too, there are thousands of different styles to choose from; everything from the traditional cuckoo bird cuckoo clock, to clocks that tell fairy tales (like the picture above, don’t forget to read the tale at the link!) and little stories every time the hour turns.

So it’s still true, cuckoo clock’s aren’t exactly en vogue right now, but that’s no matter.  They’re impressive and important in their own right. And I mean, if I can learn to appreciate them after a couple of Google searches, anyone can!

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