Smithsonian Collections

A Banjo Clock

Image for A Banjo Clock
Smithsonian Museum
National Museum of American History
In 1802 Simon Willard (1753-1848) of Boston obtained a U.S. patent for a timepiece as original as it was successful. The banjo clock, nicknamed for its characteristic shape, established the independence of American clockmaking from European traditions. Its design was perfect from the beginning. Vast numbers have been manufactured without notable modification, and its production continues today.
Willard's banjo clock was a lightly built, compact wall timekeeper, about three feet tall, accurate and dependable. It was economical to produce, graceful in appearance, and usually lacked hour-striking and alarm mechanisms. Weight-driven, it contained a small brass movement similar to that of the Massachusetts shelf clock, but further reduced in size and weight. The movement had been calculated so that a small drop of the weight (only fifteen inches as compared to about six feet for a tall case clock) would keep it running for eight days. For ease of maintenance, its pendulum was hung in front of the movement, not behind, as in tall case or Massachusetts shelf clocks, an arrangement that American clockmakers soon widely adopted.
Several thousand banjo clocks were probably built in Simon Willard's own shop. But he also freely permitted his numerous clockmaking relatives, former apprentices, and other clockmakers to produce according to his design. The signature on the banjo clock pictured here is that of Willard's brother Aaron (1757-1844). The timepiece features an unusual alarm arrangement on top of the case. The mahogany case itself is singularly plain compared to Aaron Willard's brightly painted and gilded pieces.
Currently not on view
Willard, Aaron
Date Made
ca 1830
before 1822
Credit Line
Gift of James Arthur Collection, New York University
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
overall: 40 1/2 in x 10 1/2 in x 4 in; 102.87 cm x 26.67 cm x 10.16 cm
Object Type
clock, banjo, A. Willard