Although the primary purpose of clocks is to tell time, it is not necessarily the only purpose. Many clocks have been designed to dazzle, entertain, even instruct those who see them. The novelty or specialty clock is not a recent phenomenon—since the earliest days of the mechanical clock, clockmakers have sought to make timepieces that are mechanically and decoratively unique.
Some of the earliest clocks, the tower clocks of Medieval Europe, incorporated both complex astronomical indications and automata—mechanical figures of animals and people—of Biblical characters, mythological figures, and other historical personages. During the Renaissance, the aristocracy commissioned elaborate clockwork masterpieces that showcased the goldsmith's and clockmaker's skills. Some of these items featured birds that actually sang, dogs that wagged their tails, ships that sailed, or people who blinked their eyes. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, specialty clocks, especially those featuring music and automata, remained popular, though their luxury status limited them to the wealthy.
During the 20th century, novelty timepieces were less about original designs and technical oddities than they were about capitalizing on the popular culture generated by comic books, radio, motion pictures, and later, television. During the first half of the century, clock, and watch manufacturers like Ingersoll (later U.S. Time and then Timex), Ingraham, New Haven, and Bradley recognized the large market for timepieces featuring comic book characters, cowboys, action heroes, and other cultural icons. Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Orphan Annie, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, gene Autry, Dick Tracy, Superman, and Captain Marvel all found their way onto watches or clock dials, as did many other figures, both fictional and real. The most famous character timepiece, the Mickey Mouse watch introduced by the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company in 1933, was so popular that it saved its struggling manufacture from bankruptcy. Novelty clocks still flourish today, as manufacturers continue to create timepieces featuring characters from the latest movies and cartoons.
Here are a few of the novelty clocks here at the museum: