Simon Willard

Simon Willard

Infobox Person
name = Simon Willard

image_size = 150px
caption = Simon Willard
birth_name =
birth_date = April 3, 1753
birth_place = Grafton, Massachusetts
death_date = August 30, 1848
death_place = Roxbury
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nationality = U.S.
other_names =
known_for = banjo clock
education =
employer =
occupation = clockmaker
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Simon Willard (April 3, 1753, Grafton, Massachusetts, – August 30, 1848, Roxbury, Massachusetts) was a celebrated U.S. clockmaker whose business was located in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Among his many innovations and timekeeping improvements, Simon Willard is perhaps best known for inventing the eight-day patent timepiece that came to be known as the banjo clock.

Early life

*See corresponding article: Willard Brothers

Simon Willard was of the Willards' fifth American generation whereas the original Willard family had arrived in 1634 from Kent (United Kingdom) and they were among the founders of Concord (Massachusetts). Simon Willard's parents were Benjamin Willard and Sarah Brooks whereas they were Grafton natives. Like all Willard brothers, Simon was born in the family farm, in Grafton, on April 3, 1753. Simon was the second son and his brothers were Benjamin, Aaron, and Ephraim.

The family farm of Grafton, now operated as theWillard House and Clock Museum, had been built in 1718, by the Willards' third American generation. When Simon Willard was born, the farm had just one room. The elder brother Benjamin (who was 10 years older, with respect to Simon) learned horology and Benjamin opened a workshop (1766), which was adjacent to the house. It is presumed that all Willard brothers were taught on horology, by him.

Being 11 years old, Simon began to study horology, showing some inherent ability for it.A year later, senior Benjamin hired the Englishman Mr. Morris, who would teach horology particularly to Simon. Years afterward, Simon revealed that Morris didn't know much on the matter and his brother Benjamin had been his actual mentor. Just after another year, Simon built his first tall clock.

Like some other contemporary horologists, the Willards divided their lives between both the farm chores and the clock business. The horology became profitable and Benjamin got a workshop at Lexington (Massachusetts) (1767). Also, Simon managed his own business in Grafton and nowadays some clocks survive, reading "Simon Willard, Grafton."

At his workshop of Grafton, Simon studied the clocks which were repaired by him. He experimented intensively, to reduce those timepieces' parts which did the driving and the regulation. The smallest clock was the bracket clock and Simon invented his Banjo clock (which was patented much later, in 1802), copying this design. The next creation of Simon was the Shelf clock, which was based on the Banjo one.

A Pioneer American Industry

About 1780, Simon Willard moved alone, to Boston's 2196 of Roxbury Street (Washington Street, nowadays), into a 4 room workshop. Soon after, Aaron settled at the same neighborhood, a quarter mile away. In 1784, Simon's workshop advertised: "Simon Willard opened a shop in Roxbury Street, nearly facing the road which turns off to Plymouth. There, Simon Willard carries on the clockmaking business, in all its branches." Like Aaron, Simon was still interested, to perfect the mechanism of the compact clocks. Nonetheless, since the 1890s, Simon's workshop built tall clocks in a great proportion. Also, his workshop did general clock repairs.

By both Simon and Aaron, the 18th century knowledge of horology was blended with modern industrial principles (previously cast parts, template usage, labor division, standardized production, efficient management). Round Boston, both developed an industrial zone, throughout a quarter mile radius around their shops. About 1807, 20 factories of Boston were supplying to both Willard brothers. The list included mahogany (by some nearby mills), clock parts (amongst which 20 cabinetmakers were), gilder works, and other important artistic resources. Besides, both Willards resorted to the same providers and even to the same workers.

Also, their workshops resorted to several English suppliers as the early United States lacked vital raw materials, of which the brass was the chief one. Entire English clock mechanisms, whose performance was much longer with respect to the wooden ones of America, were assembled into the mahogany clock cases of Boston.

By their quality, the clocks of Boston became a sign of status. The Americans were eager to buy clocks for whether parlors, offices, churches, or other public spaces. Simon Willard's clocks were the most famous in America. However, still they were expensive for the common people. Indeed, Simon Willard preferred to build sumptuous models, which were full of artistic details (brass touches, mainly). In his belief, the clocks had to be just so expensive that, after acquiring one, the people may be still able to furnish their fine homes.

Simon Willard built most clocks through labored handicraft and these devices were outstandingly precise. Particularly, Simon had quite trained hands and a great eye, filing cogwheels without using marks, whereas such mechanisms worked finely, with a month accuracy of 30 seconds. Although Simon's workshop produced fewer clocks with respect to Aaron's, nowadays Simon's clocks are sold by the highest bids in auctions, by their superior refinement. About 1810, both Simon and Aaron were producing clocks, which belonged among the European clock mainstream.

Besides, Simon Willard interviewed his clients personally, evaluating each detail, and he ordered his technicians that they should check each device extensively, in the customer's own home. Into each clock, Simon included brochures, with instructions, a written guarantee, and the assertion of ownership. Further technician service was provided, as well. Although Simon knew little on advertising, he promoted his workshop through papers, which were affixed inside the devices. He touted: "These clocks are made in the best manner. They run for a year and they don't wind up. We will give evidence that it's much cheaper to buy new clocks than to buy old or second hand clocks. Simon Willard warrants all his clocks." Nonetheless, in some occasions, the signature of Simon Willard was obviated from his clocks.

The Clocks

Longcase Clocks

Simon Willard built Longcase clocks which were quite sumptuous, being adorned with many fine details. These pricey models cost more than 60 dollars during their heyday, the 1790s.

In the most expensive tall clock units, the mahogany cases had a mid 18th century English style and, bearing exactly similar English brass mechanisms all, their case complexity determined their final price. Distinctively for Simon's workshop, above the clock's top fretwork, three pedestals were, on which two spherical finials and a large bird figure were mounted. Besides, like Aaron, Simon built a glass dial door, whose top had a half arch shape. Onto the dial, celebrated Boston painters painted different motifs. Also, with few extra mechanism, amusing wheels with animated figures were featured on the dial, enticing the customer interest effectively.

Along his career, Simon manufactured 1,200 tall models. However, since 1802, in which the Banjo clock was finally patented, Simon spurned the manufacture of the Tall clock, which was produced further, only by special solicitation.

The Banjo Clock

Simon Willard invented the Banjo Clock, at Grafton.For this, by him, the complex clock mechanisms of brass were reduced to their least possible size.The result was a compact timepiece, which could be affixed onto the wall, working effectively for 8 successive days.Its shape was an imitation of the traditional wheel barometers.

Its small size meant a much lower 30 dollar price as well although, still, this was much money. Nonetheless, while the American consumerism was arising, Simon's Banjo model revolutionized the clock industry, becoming the most popular clock in the United States, whereas Europe lacked some counterpart of it.

Willard patented its creation quite late (1802) but most competitors of Simon dodged this document, reaping much money with their own versions of Banjo Clock. However, never Simon filled a demand against such usage. Since 1802, in Simon's workshop, the smaller Banjo and Shelf clocks were the bread and butter models while Simon pursued his other great projects, throughout the United States. Eventually, Simon's workshop manufactured 4,000 small timepieces (Banjo and Shelf clocks).

Since its patenting, the Banjo models remained with the same original design. Typically, they were surrounded by glass tablets, which were reversely painted with neoclassical motifs. Additionally, Simon expanded the Banjo in accordance with the patent so it became either large gallery clocks or machinery regulators.

The Self Clock

After creating the Banjo model, Simon designed a Shelf clock (1780s, Grafton).The latter was like a severed Tall model, with its original hood and base, lacking its middle body. Thusly, the shortened Shelf clocks had lower prices, too, and they were successful among the American society.

Usually, in their details, the Shelf Clocks imitated the successive trends of the Tall models. The Shelf models were produced approximately until 1830.

Renowned work

enate (1801)

At Washington's Capitol, the US Senate requested Simon Willard to build a large gallery clock. Subsequently, he was invited both to set the clock up and to show its working.

Eventually, this trip had particularly importance because Simon Willard became acquainted with President Thomas Jefferson. After that they became close friends.

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1802)

Among their first correspondence, in 1801 Thomas Jefferson alerted Simon Willard that his banjo timepiece hadn't yet been patented. Subsequently, on November 25, 1801, Willard made his application to the US Patent Office. The patent was both granted and issued on February 8, 1802. It was signed by President Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and Attorney General Levi Lincoln.

In subsequent years, Simon Willard visited Thomas Jefferson at his home, which was located in Monticello, Virginia. There they held many conversations. On one occasion, Thomas Jefferson invited Willard to chop a young tree down. Subsequently, Jefferson transformed it into a cane. It was given a silver mount that read: "Thomas Jefferson to Simon Willard, Monticello."


For 50 years, Simon Willard was responsible for the periodic maintenance of all clocks at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Additionally, he oversaw Harvard's management of its clocks. Willard presented two clocks to Harvard. One was a tall-case clock; the other was a wall-mounted regulator clock that was installed in a room near University Hall.

A particular incident relates to Harvard's Great Orrery which was malfunctioning. Many craftsmen had unsuccessfully attempted to repair it until finally Harvard's authorities offered an important reward to Simon if he was able to fix it. For days, Willard analyzed the device. He fixed the orrery by drilling a hole and fastening a rivet. The satisfied authorities asked: "Now, Mr. Willard. How much do we owe you?" Willard simply answered: "Oh. About a ninepence will do, I guess."

University of Virginia (1826)

In 1826, Thomas Jefferson requested Simon Willard build a clock for the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. The clock was to be a turret one and would be placed into the University's rotunda. Jefferson provided all of the clock's plans and specifications. According to these plans, Willard precisely assembled all the clock's pieces. The clock was installed in 1827. Jefferson, however, did not live to see the operating clock because he died in July, 1826. In 1895 a blaze destroyed both University's building and Willard's clock.

Former President James Madison (1827)

At his home which was Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, former President Madison received Simon Willard. Madison gifted Willard with a second illustrious cane. It mounting was silvered and it read "Presented by James Madison, Ex-President of the United States, to Simon Willard, May 29, 1827."

Capitol Building (1837)

After an official request, in 1837 the last two of Simon Willard's important works were again destined for the Washington's Capitol Building. Although Willard was already 84 years old, nonetheless he went personally to install both.

One clock was placed into the Senate's Chamber, but afterward it was brought into the Supreme Court. The other clock was a bare mechanism indeed, and it was placed into a preexisting case which had been sculpted by Carlo Franzoni in 1819 and which represented Clio, the Greek History Muse. Both clocks are still operational.


The Banjo Clock had been invented years before, in Grafton, but its patent was issued in 1802. The original model had been called the Grafton Wall Clock. Later, it was also known as the Improved Timepiece. In 1816, its patent expired. Never, the Banjo Clock's original design could be further improved by the many clockmakers who copied it.

Immediately after arriving to Boston, Simon Willard developed a movable timepiece, the Roasting Jack, which was specifically designed for outdoor fireplaces. For it, Simon reduced the traditional English Lantern clock, simplifying its components. Simon's Jack was patented, on July 2, 1764, and the document was inked by John Hancock.

The third clock which was patented by Simon Willard was the Patent Alarm Timepiece, which was also known as the Lighthouse and which was similar to the English Skeleton Timepiece. To build a clock which might be amusing to be seen, Simon bared the clock off its case, surrounding it with a glass cupola. Such device would be a beautiful thing to be stared in the morning so Simon added a waking bell, onto it. Simon patented it in 1819 and president James Monroe inked the document. However, the model was too expensive and, also, it didn't fit among other household furniture because of its large size. Simon manufactured about 200 clocks of these whereas a few exists nowadays.


Hannah Willard

Simon Willard married Hannah Willard on November 29, 1776. She was a 20 years old Grafton native. Their lone son was born in 1777, on February 6, and he was named Isaac Watts Willard.

Mary Bird

In 1787, Simon Willard married again, to Mary Bird. She was a 24 years old Boston native. Of their sons, both Benjamin and Simon continued their father's craft.

Last Years

In 1839, Simon Willard retired. He sold his business to Elnathan Taber, his apprentice. Furthermore, Taber received the business' name too.

In August 30, 1848, Simon Willard passed away in Boston. He was 95 years old. Because of his commercial traits, Simon finished his life with just five hundred dollars. However, simultaneously all other competing clock manufacturers had benefitted from producing the Banjo Clock massively, although the corresponding royalties were never claimed by Willard.


*Nowadays, Simon Willard's clocks are recognized as American masterpieces. As such, they are avidly sought by both antiquarians and museums. In perfect condition, a Simon Willard's clock is usually sold from $50,000 up to $250,000.
*Simon Willard was particularly proud about the two canes which were given to him by American Presidents. Willard used them when he strolled around. Nowadays, both canes are displayed at Grafton's Willard House and Clock Museum.
*Succeeding Willard generations continued successfully as horologists. Simon Willard Junior (1795-1874) apprenticed in horology at Simon Willard's shop, beginning in 1828. Subsequently he established his workshop also at Boston. He specialized in both watches and chronometers, while his foremost jobs were Harvard's astronomical clock and the astronomical regulator which standardized the time for all New England's railroads.
*The Willard brothers revolutionized clock manufacturing by both division of labor and by using multiple previously molded parts. However, it is commonly accepted that historically their clocks weren't definitively popular. Instead, Eli Terry popularized clock ownership, among common American people.

Current exhibitions

Willard House and Clock Museum

Nowadays, the Grafton farm which held the original Willard family's workshop is open to the public and has become a museum, the Willard House and Clock Museum, which exhibits about 70 original clocks and many Willards' heirlooms too.
*Willard House and Clock Museum []

Old Sturbridge Village

The J. Cheney Wells Clock Gallery is located at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts. The 122-clock collection ranges from 1725 up to 1825. Some pieces are valuated above hundred thousand dollars. The collection features several clocks attributed to Simon Willard.
*Old Sturbridge Village's museum []

National Watch and Clock Museum

The National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, PA houses several Simon Willard clocks.

imon Willard's Stamp

In January 24, 2003, with its American Design Series, the US Postal Service issued a commemorative 10 cent stamp which features a Banjo clock, thus remembering Simon Willard. The stamp featured an image of a Banjo Clock's dial, drawn by the artist Lou Nolan. [ [ United States Postal Service Stamp of Simon Willard's Banjo Clock] ]


*Junior Daniel Munroe
*Levi Hutchins
*Abel Hutchins


*"A Study of Simon Willard's Clocks". Richard W. Husher and Walter W. Welch. Nahant, Massachusetts, 1980
*"Simon Willard and His Clocks". John Ware Willard. Dover 1968 edition
*"Elegant Faces & Mahogany Cases": Clocks By The Willard Family. Robert C. Cheney; Philip M. Zea. Old Sturbridge Visitor, Winter, 1992.

External links

* [ Willard House and Clock Museum]
* [ The National Watch and Clock Museum]
* [ Richmond Then and Now - A Photo History]
* [ FindArticles - LookSmart]
* [ FindArticles - LookSmart]
* [ FindArticles - LookSmart]
* [ HighBeam Research]

Main Sources

* [ Descendants of Simon Willard]
* [ Commemorative stamp]
* [ Grandfather Clocks]
* [ Old Sturbridge Village]
* [ The Willard Clocks]
* [ Timekeeping: The Lifestyle of Accuracy by Philip Zea]
* [ 1st Looksmart article]
* [ 2nd Looksmart article]
* [ Enciclopedia of Antiques]

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