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The Organ Clock in "Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors"

Organ Clock, 1820-1850. T. Hilzinger, retailer. Germany. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 77.80.11a-t. Photograph by David Bohl.

At almost nine feet tall, this clock, now on view in “Keeping Time: Clockmakers and Collectors” at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, makes a real impression. But sheer size is just the beginning; this clock features an automated performance by a uniformed band of six musicians every hour. Wooden and metal pipes inside the bonnet provide the music.

Like many clocks exhibited in “Keeping Time,” this one was collected by Willis Michael (1894-1969). Michael started his collection with a single tall case Pennsylvania clock. By the time he died decades later, his collection had grown tremendously. This clock was just one of the nearly one thousand clocks, watches, tools, books and automata that Michael and his wife Ruth (1904-1992) purchased and enjoyed.  In the accompanying photograph, you can see how the Michaels displayed this clock and others at their home in Red Lion, Pennsylvania.   

Interested in different kinds of mechanisms, technology and time-keeping systems, Michael amassed timepieces made in America, Europe and Asia, dating from the 1600s into the 1900s. German makers crafted this organ clock, also called a flötenuhr (flute clock), sometime between the 1820s and the 1850s. The pipes, bellows, painted elements, figures and musical mechanism were made in the Black Forest area. This clock plays several melodies, all ingeniously stored on a pin barrel (visible along with some of the pipes in the image below).  Right now, when activated, the clock plays the tune of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” also known as “God Save the King.”

Visitors to the Willis Michael clock room 1949
Willis Michael’s “Clock and Watch Museum.” Red Lion, Pennsylvania, 1949. Photograph by Henry M. Blatner.

A name painted on the clock’s enamel face, “T. Hilzinger,” probably indicates the retailer who sold the clock to its first owner. That person likely commissioned a local cabinetmaker to put together the hood and case to suit the clock owner's needs and taste. On the inside of this case a partial chalked name, “Moses…,” may be that of the cabinetmaker.   

During the first half of the 1800s, some Black Forest craftsmen specialized in producing sophisticated organ clocks like this one. Decorated with scenes from drama, mythology and other sources, and playing a variety of tunes taken from operas, dances and hymns, these clocks kept the time, but primarily delighted and entertained their owners. Today, this clock charms visitors to “Keeping Time” and will through October, 2016.

Detail organ clock 77.80.11
Detail, Organ Clock, 1820-1850. T. Hilzinger, retailer. Germany. Gift of Mrs. Willis R. Michael, 77.80.11a-t.

Many thanks to Prof. Eduard C. Saluz, Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Furtwangen, Germany.


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