Tag Archives: today I learned

Why are They Called Grandfather Clocks?

Mom often refers to the newspaper’s comics page as “The educational section.” And while she means it in jest (I think), I’ve learned something new because of a web comic.

Monday’s Questionable Content has one of the characters concluding a discussion by saying, “…and that’s why they’re called grandfather clocks.”

It really had nothing to do with anything (aside from the character, Brun, being fascinated by clocks), but it did leave me wondering,… “Why are they called grandfather clocks?”

So, I asked Google (because that’s how things work these days) and learned the story of how the American songwriter Henry Clay Work was inspired to write the song “My Grandfather’s Clock.

There’s a really nice write up from 2012 at Today I found Out, but the gist of it is that in 1875, Work was staying at the George Hotel in Yorkshire and was intrigued by the longcase clock (what we now call a “grandfather clock”) in the lobby.

The story goes that the clock had belonged to the hotel’s previous owners, the Jenkins brothers, and kept perfect time throughout their lives. But when the first of the two brothers died, the clock suddenly became less accurate. And at the moment the second brother died, the clock stopped working altogether.

Inspired by the story, Work wrote the song, “My Grandfather’s Clock” which became a huge hit, selling more than one million copies (a nearly unprecedented achievement at the time). As a result of the song’s success, the public began referring to longcase clocks as “Grandfather clocks.”

Johnny Cash recorded a version in 1959.

Boyz II Men recorded a version in 2004

Wikipedia lists a number of other recordings and stories using it for inspiration.

Cover image, public domain via Wikipedia