Gone Cuckoo!

My fascination with horology started when I was about 5 years old. Our English text book at that time – Radiant Readers book 1 (or 2) had a story on the life of John Harrison, the famous English clockmaker. There was a picture of Harrisons H1 – this exquisite piece of engineering that did not look like any other clock  I had ever seen – four dials, and a whole lot of levers and springs and stuff that looked great! I had never seen any any clock that looked even vaguely like it.

                                John Harrisson’s H1

I could not get any further information on that masterpiece then, but a visit to the Salar Jung museum in Hyderabad a few years later had my fascination and passion for clocks revived. There was beautiful clock that had automatons, a man hammering something on an anvil and another man who came out from behind a door and struck the hour on a gong – every hour. It also had many small dials around the big large one in the centre. I did not know what all the other dials were at that time, but I was sufficiently inspired to start dis- assembling some of my grandmothers clocks to make my own clock with a man chopping wood. Of course, the experiment was short lived and I had to hear ‘remember how you opened up my clocks and destroyed them’ almost for most of my adult life! Now, years as I better understand the principles of horology, the dream of making clocks and automatons is still alive! I have only made one grandfather clock, but I have restored dozens of vintage clocks and watches. Horology is an all encompassing hobby now. My collection consists of most of the classic specimens of various types and styles. Cuckoo clocks are amongst my favourites.

One of the characteristic designs has a little bird – a Cuckoo, appear on the hour and make a distinct ‘cuck coo’ as many times as the hour, every hour and once every half hour. Cuckoo clocks are the closest the common man can come to owning a clock with some form of automata. The little bird is an elegant masterpiece of simplicity and design. Rocking on a pivot (the perch), you can actually see the birds beak open and close with each chirp! The mechanism also opens a door, pushes the bird out, the bird cheeps the required number of times, and then the bird withdraws and the door closes. The innards of the clock contain the cheeping mechanism comprising two bellows with differently tuned whistles that produce the ‘Cuck Coo’ sound. In addition to this the clock mechanism has a system of counting the required number of cheeps, an open and shut mechanism for the door and lever system to push and pull the bellows. Most of the basic clocks also have a gong which is struck with a hammer immediately after each ‘cuck coo’. Beautifully complex and simple at the same time! The elegance of the cases is another story altogether!

All of them are some form of bird house which has a door that opens where the Cuckoo makes her appearance. Most are traditionally made of wood with carved trim usually depicting leaves and birds – Cuckoo’s of course! Others depict hunting scenes and have a stags head on top complete with antlers! Some have saddles and guns! Some are just plain typical Swiss or German mountain cottages! More complex styles include a musical movement in addition to the Cuckoo. A small tune plays along with the birds. Some Cuckoo clocks do not have birds at all! Birds are replaced with figures that dance and appear through one doorway and disappear through another, whilst the music plays.

Recently I decided to involve myself with some restoration of my Cuckoo clocks. Most of the problems were with the bellows and whistles – the part that makes the distinct ‘cuck coo’ sound.

Cuckoo bellows 01

Traditionally, the bellows were made with paper thin leather, but now a type of flexible paper similar to currency notes is used. Leather stiffens and cracks with age rendering them dysfunctional. Sometimes the leather is eaten by weevils or cockroaches. I removed the old remnants of leather and carefully cleaned the parts of any traces of old glue. Then a piece of bellows paper was cut to the desired profile and glued to the whole assembly. About an hour later when everything had dried, I carefully folded and formed the accordion pleats that give the bellows their unique function. Then the movement was dis-assembled, cleaned and re-assembled. After every moving part was lubricated, the bird was re-installed into her renovated home. She’s all set and ready to chirp again! But maybe its not the bird who’s gone cuck coo this time – its me!


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