Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

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Out the flapping doors springs a little mechanical bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo! Admittedly kitschy and somewhat annoying, it likewise has to be one of the cutest and most delightful inventions of all time.

Since emerging from the German Black Forest region in the eighteenth century (1), the cuckoo clock has become a cultural icon. If having never seen or heard one firsthand, you still likely know what one is. After all, the device appears in literature and art, even cartoons and pop music. It remains a cultural fixture of the West.

The staying power of the cuckoo is all the more impressive when considering that avian automatons have existed for more than two thousand years. Bird-themed devices that simulate the calls and motions of the real thing have exerted an alluring pull on people’s imaginations. But what are we to make of this? And, specifically, why has the cuckoo become the modern standard-bearer of avis mechanica and clockwork figures?

Ancient Feats of Fowl Engineering

As far as bird-styled mechanical clocks and automatons go, the cuckoo clock is a relative latecomer. At least a couple millennia before the Black Forest community of craftsmen popularized their iconic inventions, ancient Greek scientists had put forward their own designs. Archytas’s wooden pigeon employed weights and pressurized air for flight (2). Ktesibios’ mechanical water clock featured birds that whistled with the turning of each hour (3). Later, utilizing similar pneumatic and water principles, Hero of Alexandra and Philo of Byzantium conceived their versions of artificial singing birds (4, 5).

With the fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages, interest in mechanical inventions declined. Of course, such contraptions eventually returned with greater flair and refinement. For instance, inside the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s lavishly furnished throne room supposedly sang mechanical birds forged in gold (6). More than a thousand years later, William Butler Yeats reimagined these warbling automata in his “Sailing to Byzantium” (7) and “Byzantium,” as the songsters represent the “artifice of eternity” for which the poems’ speaker longs. While previous literary works containing songbird gadgetry, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” suggest a leeriness towards machines (8, 9), Yeats’s poems welcome the “glory of changeless metal” over “complexities of mire or blood.” (10)

Of course, humanity’s fascination with technology continued well beyond Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). During Europe’s middle and late medieval periods, pleasure gardens and rooms featuring mechanical birds sprung up principally in the Islamic world. Such automata were noted in the palace courtyard of al-Muqtadir, the early tenth-century caliph of Baghdad (11). Technology like this developed a few centuries later in Western Europe. Around 1300, avian automata were reportedly installed at the Hesdin chateau in Artois, France (12). Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli depicted elaborate designs in his 1588 Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine, some featuring mechanical birds (13). Among the oddest of simulacrum contraptions, though, occurred one and half centuries after Ramelli’s work. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson began demonstrating an artificial duck in 1738 that was said to mimic the actual waterfowl’s behavior, including activities such as eating and defecating (14).

About Time

The clockmakers of the Middle Ages returned to the avian theme initiated by Ktesibios. Timekeeping designs, like their automata counterparts, also steadily became more sophisticated. Syrian engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) envisioned an “Elephant clock,” which atop a pachyderm replica included a whistling mechanical bird (15). Several centuries later, clockwork masterpieces in Western Europe featured mechanically animated crowing roosters. Among these, one was installed in 1573 at the cathedral of Strasburg, Germany, and another the following century within the royal apartments of Versailles, France (16). By the 1700s, the cuckoo clock emerged an exciting novelty from the southwestern mountains of Germany. Later productions included additional favorites, such as blackbirds and nightingales (17).

Feathered creatures are an obvious choice for clocks, for birds have long been linked to time. Even Yeats’s eternal songsters in “Sailing to Byzantium” trill “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Such connections have much to do with avifauna’s migratory instincts. As American writer Jim Harrison eloquently states in one his poems:

Most birds own the ancient clock of north and south, a clock that never had hands, the god-time with which the universe began. (18)

The times of day or seasons when birds are heard, thus, are rich with temporal associations. Roosters, due to their morning calls, are connected with the day and sun, just as owls, for their nocturnal habits, are to the night and the moon. Swallows return in the spring, and cuckoos in the summer, an observation noted in a sixteenth-century English poem of Geoffrey Whitney (19). Regarding the cuckoo, migratory connections, as well as the simplicity and familiarity of its call, most likely account for the bird’s popularity.

Let’s not overlook that cuckoos are likewise associated with zany, off-the-wall behavior. So as far as clocks go, not much could be more outlandishly amusing than a little bird popping out of a house-shaped clock, right?

Coo-coo! Coo-coo!

Sources:

  1. Wolff, HW. Rambles in the Black Forest. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890. pp. 178-179.
  2. Cooke, CW. Automata Old and New. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. p. 16.
  3. Truitt, ER. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. p. 4.
  4. Cooke, CW. pp. 17-24.
  5. Truitt, ER. p. 4.
  6. Treadgold, W. “The Macedonia Renaissance”. Renaissances Before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Treadgold, W (editor). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984. p. 86.
  7. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. p. 58.
  8. Hyman, WB. “‘Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes’: The Early Modern Figure of the Mechanical Bird”. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Hyman, WB (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. pp. 145-162.
  9. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  10. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  11. Truitt, ER. p. 20.
  12. Truitt, ER. pp. 122-124.
  13. Hyman, WB. p. 151.
  14. Cooke, CW. pp. 60, 64-68.
  15. “The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/451402.
  16. Cooke, CW. pp. 52-54.
  17. Wolff, HW. pp. 179.
  18. Harrison, J. “Old Bird Boy”. In Search of Small Gods. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. p. 56.
  19. Lutwack, L. p. 24.
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14 thoughts on “Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

  1. Very interesting. I tried but failed to find a video or link to one of my favorite cuckoo clocks — one made by the Bily Brothers of Spilville, Iowa. It has two different cuckoos, each with its own distinctive song – one a traditional Swedish cuckoo, and the other, German. I grew up in Iowa, and visited the place a few times.

    Now we get battery-operated numbers with a different bird singing at the top of each hour. They’re fine, but not so fine as the traditional clocks.

    1. There are lots of contemporary takes on the original. But, like you mentioned, the traditional ones are hard to beat. The clocks with different birds at each hour seem interesting enough. Are the songs or calls specific to each kind of bird?

      1. Yes, they are. I can recall the cardinal, blue jay, mockingbird, meadowlark, and owl. To the extent possible, they’ve matched each bird with the time of day when it’s most likely to be heard: cardinals and mockingbirds in the morning, doves nearer late afternoon. The calls are good, too — as good as any I’ve heard on various sites like Cornell.

  2. Coo-coo coo-coo…mildly sung, that is the birdsong of our local native pigeon, normally called a turtledove (why, I don’t know). A dusky pink, with iridescent markings where they should be, and the size of a normal pigeon. Often they visit my balcony to scratch around for tidbits, especially during summer! I wonder…
    My remembrances of German cuckoo clocks popped out a bird about the size of a sparrow and looking like a sparrow. Of course, they couldn’t be true to life size in such a contraption. I didn’t mind their regularity. In fact, I used to give a little giggle each hour when ours popped out…I looked forward to it. The clock disappeared when my parents built their very modern home, in which such an item just didn’t fit.
    I’d like to see an Islamic version…not something I’d associate with them!

    1. When growing up, were there lots of folks in Germany with cuckoo clocks? Singing bird automatons were built in parts of Islamic culture. The so-called “Elephant Clock” includes a bird—it’s quite impressive!

      1. Islamic bird thingies — I’ve looked at the elephant one you gave a link to…yes, it is very impressive, but rather cruel to the poor elephant’s head! I grew up in Australia and we brought the clock with us as immigrants. I have seen cuckoo clocks in German homes from a visit there. Don’t know if it’s common ‘tho!
        PS: I must say I really like your wife’s illustration; in fact, the large bird in it looks a little like my turtledove/pigeon whose coo-coo sound I was describing in my comment.

      2. Thanks, she based her illustration on the European cuckoo. By the way, did you know that the largest species of cuckoo in the world can be found in Australia? The channel-billed cuckoo. Turtledoves and pigeons, though, have a much more pleasant call!

  3. After I learned that european cuckoos are nest parasites – laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, killing the “rightful” young, and fooling the other bird parents into raising the cuckoo chick – they seemed so much more sinister! If this had been common knowledge in the 1700’s, I wonder if it would affected the German clock-makers bird choice? Thanks for the fascinating article!

    1. It was a fun piece to research, Marcy. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Apparently many people were aware of the bird’s brood parasitism, as evident from some of the writings back then. However, I think that the cuckoo’s positive associations with warmer weather may have been more prevalent. Just the sound of the bird’s “kooky”call—somewhat comical—was probably just as important to the clock’s appeal.

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