REVIEW: Elliott-The Clockmaker's Assistant (1726)

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

NAWCC Star Fellow
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NAWCC Fellow
Sep 23, 2001

Hereto unknown 1729 book of horological teeth-counts discovered

The Clock Maker’s Assistant: Or a Treatise concerning the Calculation of all Manner of Numbers belonging to all Sorts of Clocks, by Henry Elliott with an introduction by Anthony Turner. Published 2011 by Rogers Turner Books, London, as a Facsimile of the 1729 original. 134 pages, 18 cm x 11 cm, paperback. No ISBN Number. Available from the publisher (e-mail: for UKP 20 plus postage.

There are a rather limited number of English language books that deal with the practicalities of laying out a clock mechanism that date to the first half of the 18th century or earlier. Therefor the recent discovery of a title not listed in any of the relevant bibliographies, nor found in any of the major libraries known to hold horological books by the British/Franco horological scholar Anthony Turner is an exciting event. He has now released a facsimile edition of his find, a book originally self-published in 1726 in London by the author, a then elderly, retired, otherwise undistinguished clockmaker named Henry Elliott.

The utilitarian black and white, paperback facsimile, with a 16 page introduction by Turner, for me this newly discovered and republished book mainly illustrates issues of class and how horological know-how was passed on during that era. The author was a practicing craftsman in a time when there were few if any books written for or by practical craftsmen. Writing books was a privilege of ‘learned’ people, an activity for scholars and scientists rather than for experienced clockmakers.
Generally the first English language book covering the subject in some depth is considered to be an appendix in “Horological dialogues”, by the celebrated mathematician William Oughtred (1675). A more detailed version of the same text – but now in Latin – by the same author was published 1677 in “Opuscula Mathematica”. Next was John Smith with “Horological Disquisitions…” (1694). All these texts apparently are so theoretical as to be somewhat confusing, The first more accessible text on the subject was William Derham's “Artificial Clockmaker…” first published in London in 1696. But it is noteworthy that Derham, a young scholar and later a Fellow of the Royal Society, chose to publish anonymously (just using his initials), presumably because becoming known as the author of a relatively ‘practical’ book was below his social status.
Elliot, as a practicing clockmaker, found Derham, just like predecessors to be ‘so obscure, not to say unintelligible, that they have been rendered useless to the Vulgar and Unlearned’. Although he labels his book a “Treatise”, in reality it is much more a practical ‘cheat sheet’, a listing of countless various gear ratios that achieve a desired effect in various types and dimensions of clocks. I am sure it would have been useful to practicioners of the craft at his time, although its structure is not always easy to follow. It is an attractive specimen of the book printers’ art of its period.

This reviewer found the book primarily fascinating as a window to the issues facing clockmakers at that time, rather than of much practical use today for its content. And of course it is always exciting to discover a hereto unknown old horological publication – even if, as it turns out that Turners discovery is not the single surviving copy of the text: The library meta-search engine records that there is one copy in the thousands of libraries which are covered by Worldcat; for some reason the ‘Det Kongelige Bibliotek: Nationalbibliotek og Københavns Universitetsbibliotek’ (the Royal National Library of Denmark’ in Copenhagen) seems to have a copy that had somehow escaped the efforts of all horological bibliographers to date.

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ December 2011
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