Stylish and innovative, this "lighthouse" timepiece illustrates the ingenuity of America's foremost clockmaker, Simon Willard (1753-1848) of Roxbury, Massachusetts. In 1819, Willard received a patent for an "alarum timepiece," a mechanism that the clockmaker hailed as notable for both its "elegance and usefulness" with its fashionable case and precision time-keeping (see Willard's 1822 advertisement, fig. 1). As the patent document indicates, the original design was intended as an alarm clock and many early examples included an alarm bell mounted above the movement, all under a glass dome. As Willard's design evolved, the alarm mechanism was omitted. His early lighthouse clocks were rather simple, with painted dials framed by plain brass bezels. The cases were often painted and some were mounted on square mahogany bases. In just a few years, the form evolved into elegant figured mahogany cases with tapered waists and octagonal bases.
These later examples were ornamented with highly detailed ormolu mounts, including ornate cast bezels, gilt brass feet and white enamel dials. His design culminated in the current example with its ebonized reeded case, enamel dial, exceptional ormolu castings and gilt lyre-form finial.
Lighthouse clocks were individually made and never produced in quantity. Likely due to their expensive cases, Willard's lighthouse clocks apparently did not sell well and few have survived today. Only two clocks of this important form with ebonized reeded cases are known. The other example, made a short time before this one, is numbered 150 on the dial (see Sotheby's, New York, 9 October 1997, lot 414). Willard offered his customers options for case styles. Numbers 151 and 152 are known with more traditional mahogany cases, indicating that mahogany examples were still being produced alongside these reeded cases.
Simon took his son Simon Jr. (1795-1874) into partnership in 1823 as Simon Willard & Son and most of his fully developed lighthouse clocks are signed with this partnership name on the dial. Only five Simon Willard & Son lighthouse clocks with a production number on the enamel dial are known. They are all of the later type, with high numbers on their dials. Most lighthouse clock dials are not numbered. This example, No. 154, bears the highest number known. This dial numbering is reminiscent of what can be found on Aaron Willard Jr. (1783-1864) and Simon Willard & Son patent timepiece (banjo) clock dials. If these numbered lighthouse clocks relate to chronological records kept by Willard, it seems to indicate that less than one hundred sixty lighthouse clocks were produced, with this clock being the last one known to have been made (Paul J. Foley, Willard's Patent Time Pieces: A History of the Weight-Driven Banjo Clock, 1800-1900 (Norwell, Massachusetts, 2002), pp. 53, 332-334; forthcoming Willard Museum publication on lighthouse clocks, working title: Simon Willard Patent Alarm Time Pieces by Paul J. Foley and John C. Losch).
This timepiece was previously owned by W. Torrey Little (1908-1996), a furniture dealer who operated a shop and auction business in Marshfield, Massachusetts from the 1930s until the late 1980s (Skinner, Inc., Bolton, 23 March 1997, p. 1).
Paul J. Foley and Gary R. Sullivan