Big Ben has fallen silent. But another clock is chiming on – 600 years after it was made

Mechanism of Wells Cathedral Clock
The mechanism of the Wells Cathedral Clock. Credit: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

Wells Cathedral Clock has one of the oldest clock mechanisms in the world. As it finds a new home in a more prominent area of the Science Museum, we cast a look at its history. But can its chimes and charms rival Big Ben?

What would the medievalists think of today’s clocks, built into our phones, tucked away on our screens or, at best, encased in plastic and slung onto a bedside table? The more scientific among them – perhaps an early Steve Jobs – might have been impressed. How incredible that something so small can tell the time. But the ones who appreciate the more aesthetic things in life? Not so much. After all, they had sculptures like the Wells Cathedral Clock – and the impressive mechanism that makes it run like clockwork.

Mechanical clocks were invented in the late 13th century and the clock at Wells Cathedral in Somerset is thought to have been one of the first. Made in 1392, the mechanism is still chiming the quarter hours and striking each hour.

Wells Cathedral in Somerset
Wells Cathedral in Somerset. Credit: VisitEngland/Iain Lewis

The mechanism was separated from its ornamental covering – now still at Wells (and well worth a trip), and moved to the Science Museum in the late nineteenth century. It has now moved home again – although just downstairs to the Making the Modern World gallery, where visitors can get closer to its clicks and clangs as it measures out the seconds.

An important barograph clock has also trundled downstairs to the gallery to allow extra admiration from the visitors. Alexander Cumming, clockmaker to King George III, made this clock in 1766, and it was used in some of the first urban climate studies. The real attraction is the carved mahogany case made by Thomas Chippendale. Digital clocks have many benefits – it would be hard to travel with the Wells mechanism or the Chippendale case – but they aren’t as much of a conversation starter.

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