The first Black Forest cuckoo clocks were made in the middle of the 18th century. They had hand-painted shields and wooden clockworks.
There are two main fables from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which tell conflicting stories about the origin of the cuckoo clock.
The first is from Father Franz Steyrer, written in 1796. He describes a meeting between two clock traders from Furtwangen (Black Forest) who met a travelling Bohemian trader who sold wooden cuckoo clocks. Both the Furtwangen traders were so excited that they bought one.
On bringing it home they copied it and showed their imitation to other Black Forest clock traders. Its popularity grew in the region and more and more clockmakers started producing them. The second story is related by another priest, Markus Fidelis Jäck, in a passage from his report "Darstellungen aus der Industrie und des Verkehrs aus dem Schwarzwald" ("Description of Industry and Commerce of the Black Forest"), 1810: "The cuckoo clock was invented by a clock-master from Schönwald.
This craftsman adorned a clock with a moving bird that announced the hour with the cuckoo-call. The clock-master got the idea of how to make the cuckoo-call from the bellows of a church organ". As time went on, the second version became the more popular, and is the one generally related today.
R. Dorer pointed out, in 1948, that Franz Anton Ketterer (1734 - 1806) could not have been the inventor of the cuckoo clock in 1730 because he hadn't then been born. Gerd Bender in "Die Uhrenmacher des hohen Schwarzwaldes und ihre Werke" wrote that the cuckoo clock was not native to the Black Forest. Schaaf in "Schwarzwalduhren", provides his own research which leads to the earliest cuckoos being in the "Franken-Niederbayern" area (East of Germany), in the direction of Bohemia (a region of the Czech Republic), which he notes, lends credence to the Steyrer version.
Although the idea of placing a cuckoo bird in a clock did not originate in the Black Forest, it is necessary to emphasize that the cuckoo clock as we know it today, comes from this region located in southwest Germany whose tradition of clockmaking started in the late seventeenth century. The Black Forest people who created the cuckoo clock industry developed it, and still come up with new designs and technical improvements which have made the cuckoo clock a valued work of art all over the world. The cuckoo clock history is linked to the Black Forest.
At the beginning of the 19th century the now traditional Black Forest clock design, the "Schilduhr" (shield clock), which had a painted flat square wooden face, behind which all the clockwork was attached. On top of the square was usually a semicircle of highly decorated wood which contained the door for the cuckoo. There was no cabinet surrounding the clockwork in this model. This model was the most prevalent model for the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, there were also cuckoo mechanisms combined with the "Rahmenuhr" (framed-clock). As the name suggests, this clock consisted of a picture frame, usually with a typical Black Forest scene painted on a wooden background or a lithograph. The cuckoo was usually included in the scene, and would pop out in 3D, as usual, to announce the hour.
In 1850 the first director auf the grandducal clockmaker school at Furtwangen Robert Gerwig launched a public competition to submit designs for modern clockcases, which would allow homemade products to attain a professional appearance. Friedrich Eisenlohr, who as an architect had been responsible for creating the buildings along the then new and first railroad line, submitted the most far-reaching design. Eisenlohr enhanced the facade of a standard railroad-guard’s residence, as he had built many of them, with a clock dial. This wall clock became the prototype of today’s popular Souvenir cuckoo clocks.
By 1860, the Bahnhäusle style had started to develop away from its original, “severe” graphic form, and evolve toward the well-known case with three-dimensional woodcarvings. 1862 Johann Baptist Beha started to enhance his richly decorated Bahnhaeusle clocks with hands carved from bone, and weights cast in the shape of pine cones. Even today this combination of elements is characteristic for cuckoo clocks.
The chalet style originated at the end of nineteenth century. There are currently three different basic styles: Black Forest chalet, Swiss chalet (with two types the "Brienz" and the "Emmenthal") and finally the Bavarian chalet.
The basic cuckoo clock of today is the railway-house (Bahnhäusle) form, still with its rich ornamentation, and these are known under the name of "traditional". The richly decorated Bahnhaeusle clocks have become a symbol of the Black Forest that is instantly understood anywhere in the world.
The centre of production continues to be the Black Forest region of Germany, in the area of Triberg im Schwarzwald and Neustadt, where there are several dozen firms making the whole clock or parts of it. The cuckoo clock is often wrongly associated with Switzerland, as in the movie The Third Man. In the USA, this error is probably due to a story by Mark Twain in which the hero depicts the Swiss town of Lucerne as the home of cuckoo clocks.