Joseph Ellicott

One of the most famous American clock makers was Joseph Ellicott (1732-1780). Mechanically inclined and a mathematical genius, he worked as a surveyor and designed and built mills and associated machinery. Ellicott is most well-known as a clock maker, and the maker of one of the most important clocks in American history, the four-sided 1767 astronomical and musical clock that resides in the Smithsonian.

In 1766, Ellicott traveled to England to collect an inheritance and met members of The Royal Society including the famous astronomer and mathematician James Ferguson, and relative John Ellicott, a renowned London clock and watchmaker. Joseph kept a journal that records he had a clock movement and repeating watch that he made in America with him (Evans, 19). The fate of that watch is unknown. Ellicott returned to America on Sept 21, 1767.

Joseph Ellicott Pocket Watch

No surviving Joseph Ellicott signed watches were known until a private party in Milford, New Jersey offered this example for sale in the late 1980’s. It may have been sourced on Ellicott's 1766 trip; it is unknown what work or finishing Ellicott may have personally done.

The watch has a Fusee movement with verge escapement, square baluster pillars, white enamel dial with intricate hands and pierced asymmetrical balance table. The movement is signed "Josh Ellicott Pencilvania 202." Note the spelling of Pennsylvania which was an alternative spelling used in early America.

Ellicott Pocket Watch

Joseph Ellicott Watch

Ellicott Watch Maker

RW Case Maker's Mark

The matching silver pair cases have Chester assay date letter "P" (struck twice) for 1765-66 and case maker’s mark “RW” that may possibly be Ralph Wakefield of Liverpool.

The Joseph Ellicott watch contains two watch papers. The first is for Henry Cliffton at Fair-View, King-Wood and the second is for J. A. Everitt, Northampton Street, Easton. The Everitt paper has an 1820 servicing date on the back.

American Watch Paper
American Watch Paper

Joseph’s eldest son Andrew became an eminent surveyor, and clock and instrument maker in his own right. He received appointments from President George Washington and worked with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as the principal surveyor for laying out Washington D.C., the new capital city, replacing planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1792 (brothers Benjamin and Joseph Jr. participated). He also surveyed lands in the Niagara Falls River area, developed the plan for Erie, Pennsylvania, was George Washington's representative to negotiate and survey the boundaries with Spain in Florida, and helped outfit the Lewis and Clark Expedition with equipment and training in 1803. Interestingly, the Ellicott’s befriended the free slave astronomer and scientist Benjamin Banneker who worked for Andrew on the Washington D.C. commission.

Additional References and recommended reading:

  • James Gibbs, Pennsylvania Clocks and Watches, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1984, pp. 109-110

  • Frank Hohmann III, Timeless Masterpiece American Brass Dial Clocks, Hohmann Holdings LLC, New York, p. 333

  • Catharine Mathews, Andrew Ellicott, His Life and Letters, The Grafton Press, New York, p. 6

  • Charles Evans, Biographical and Historical Accounts of the Fox, Ellicott, and Evans Families, and the Different Families Connected With Them, Charles W. Evans, Buffalo, New York