The cuckoo clock is the ultimate souvenir of the Black Forest, a region rich in wood and in craftsmen-farmers.
Famously, and mistakenly, attributed to the Swiss, the cuckoo clock was actually ‘invented’ in Germany’s Black Forest, and has remained largely unchanged in its basic design for the last 200 years. Today the Black Forest town of Furtwangen, which saw the opening of the first Clockmakers School in the mid 19th century, is home to the German Clock and Watch Museum, and is widely accepted as the centre of the modern cuckoo clock industry.
There have been plenty of sporadic examples of mechanical clocks with bird or animal figures way back through recorded history. A Greek mathematician reportedly created one in the 2nd century BC, but the first known record of a mechanical cuckoo marking the hours on a clock is from Germany, in 1629, and it belonged to royalty from Saxony.
Largely unchanged in its basic design for the last 200 years
How the design came to the Black Forest is not known, but a cottage industry of clockmaking in carved wood had taken root in the region as a result of the ready availability of wood and of painstaking labour to carve it, particularly during the winter time when farmers and their wives had little else to do during the long hours of darkness. So by the middle of the 18th century, several small clockmaking shops were producing cuckoo clocks.
The design was simple enough. A carved wooden house contained the mechanism, worked by a pendulum, with a bird on a spring, and a two note cuckoo call produced by a little set of bellows and a pipe. Over the centuries there have been various styles of exterior decoration reflective of the artistic movements of the time, making them eminently collectable, but the cuckoo call has been essentially unvaried since the 18th century. If the bird could have somehow claimed its performance rights, then it would no doubt be able to afford a home of its own, and not to have to continue to usurp those of others.
These days many clocks now have a quartz mechanism rather than a mechanical one, and you can often tell the difference through the cuckoo call, which is a recording, and often backed up by a plashing waterfall or some such idyll of nature.
A substantial industry in the region still produces mechanical cuckoo clocks, at a rate of hundreds of thousands a year, although you do need to be careful you’re not being fooled into purchasing a cheap import. Four of the biggest cuckoo clocks in the world (the largest being 4.5 metres square) are also located here, in the villages of Höllsteig, Niederwasser, Schonach, and Schonachbach.
To check whether your cuckoo clock is locally made, see if the manufacturer (or the shop) belongs to the Black Forest Clock Association.
Furtwangen’s German Clock and Watch Museum.