Those who have ever been slaves to the “snooze” button on cell phones or alarm clocks in the morning, will want to take a closer look at the Flintlock Alarm Candle Clock, one of 750 lots offered in Skinner’s European Furniture & Decorative arts auction on July 15, 2016 in Marlborough, MA. I am going to venture that when this clock was made, c. 1745, the mechanism likely functioned in such a way that the idea of a “snooze” button would not be necessary. Nor were church bells or the resident rooster for that matter. This clock meant business.
In fact, in the very few known examples of similarly-designed alarm clocks, the flintlock is activated when the alarm finishes sounding, the fueled and loaded flintlock is triggered, and ignites the wick of the candle, releasing a spring lever which propels the candle and candle cup into a 90 degree angle (revealing it from under the hinged lid which normally hides it.) Thus, the room the clock is placed in is soon illuminated. Chances are, this clock, provided an unusual and more energizing routine than most other common methods of waking up in the morning.
This clock is one of several items deaccessioned from Colonial Willliamsburg featured in the July 15th auction. Proceeds from the sale of these items will be used by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, exclusively for the acquisition of art and antiques to be exhibited in its art museums and historic buildings.
Comparable flintlock alarm candle clocks are quite rare, though one can be found at the British Museum (attributed to an Austrian maker) and another at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire (signed “Pierre Morier, Lon-don.”) A closer look at the clock featured in Skinner’s auction reveals that the side of the case has been inscribed “Vincent Des Combes,” though the mechanism was signed “V Des Combes Schleswig;” similar examples have been found to have come from regions of southern Germany. Snowshill Manor was built in medieval times, but became a collector’s dream house when purchased by Charles Paget Wade who filled the stone house with a vastly eclectic assortment of treasures. Soon even the soundest mortared walls seemed to undulate with its panoply of 22,000 objects, including the flintlock alarm clock which can be found in the “Occidens” room. The original owner of the Snowshill clock (as is the case for the first/original owner of the flintlock clock in Skinner’s sale) probably would have been a nobleman, or certainly of a class that could afford such a luxurious statement piece.
The need for an alarm clock evolved throughout the centuries perhaps in natural course. In medieval times, the monastery functioned by the church bells, calling those to participate in all of the spiritual activities of the community. The earliest devices with alarm functions were likely developed to ensure that people would be able to engage in important religious rituals. The court and city as well functioned by the bells of the church, and were guided by constellations at night. The demand for production of domestic clocks, mainly for court life in Europe and England, meant that there was a need for skilled craftsmen, many of German origin, to work in France, the Netherlandish areas, Italy, and England.
By the time the flintlock alarm candle clock was made, England, and namely London, was marketed as a major clock-making center to the broader world. During the 17th-18th century (and even before), automata objects were favored as status symbols prized by the noble and gentry classes, and clocks were made with elaborate and fanciful mechanisms. In 1689 in China, Emperor Kangxi established the “The Office of the Self Ringing Bells,” which would be staffed with clockmakers from Europe and China, and at times, produce almost 200 clocks annually. Trade with western merchants increased significantly from Emperor Kangxi to the Qianlong period, and dozens of clocks were brought each year during the 18th century to China, many coming from England. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, an alarm clock was made by the “Office of Manufacturing at the Hall of Mental Cultivation,” the “Clock Workshop,” and is still part of the collection of the Palace Museum Forbidden City, all which further underscores the important influence European clockmaking had on the world, and the interest in further developing alarm mechanisms, particularly for the noble class.
Clocks with alarm mechanisms made in Europe in the 17th century can be found in museums in Europe, evidence that the alarm mechanism was certainly not a new interest when the flintlock alarm clock was made, c. 1745. However, the flintlock alarm clock (Lot 547) featured in Skinner’s July 15th auction is a rarity in the realm of clocks, and few clocks, even when compared with those having elaborate automata functions, can provide the “whiz-bang” ingenuity of this special timepiece, and none as elegantly and as compactly designed.
Set your alarm, on whatever device you choose, to go off at 10AM on July 15th—and bid on a rare masterwork of the clock world.