Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Six Quaker Clockmakers in North America

The so-called ‘Six Quaker Clockmakers’ comprised four generations of a family of skilled clock and instrument makers, working in New England between 1702 and 1813. The first of the six, Abel Cottey, probably built the first clock to be made in America . The second was Benjamin Chandlee, his apprentice and son-in-law, the third was Abel’s grandson, also Benjamin Chandlee, and the fourth, fifth and sixth, his great-grandsons, Goldsmith, Ellis and Isaac. Goldsmith is known in particular for his technically advanced compasses, designed for use by surveyors.

Abel Cottey (1655-1711), the first of the six, was born in Devon, England. He was already well known as a maker of lantern clocks and long-case clocks when he sailed with William Penn to Pennsylvania in 1682, bringing with him the metal springs and escapements needed for his clocks. The clock he built in Philadelphia in 1709 is the first known clock to have been built in North America, and is still in working order today. Cottey became very prosperous, making clocks for William Penn himself, among others.

Cottey’s apprentice, Benjamin Chandlee Sr (1685-1745), married Cottey’s daughter, Sarah. He came from a Quaker family in County Kildare, Ireland, a descendant of an English soldier who had been ‘convinced of the truth’ by William Edmundson, who had been central to the establishment of Quakerism to Ireland. Benjamin emigrated to Philadelphia in 1702. His letter home to his brother, Ephraim, is a rich source of information about conditions for Irish immigrants in America at this period.

Benjamin Chandlee Jr (1623-1791), was probably the first of the family to make all the elements of his works himself, rather than relying on imported parts from England. After working for a time with his father, he set himself up in Maryland. The brass dials in his surviving clocks are considered works of art.

Goldsmith Chandlee (1751 - 1821), Benjamin Jr’s eldest son, was born in Maryland, USA. After serving an apprenticeship with his father, he moved to Virginia. There he set up a brass foundry and build clocks, compasses, telescopes and other instruments. Goldsmith is known particularly for his compasses, which were technically advanced for the period and of fine workmanship. Intended for use by surveyors, they included an ‘L/T table’ on the face, which allowed surveyors to covert links in a chain (one eightieth of a mile) to tenths of a pole (one twentieth of a mile). They also included an ‘outkeeper’, an attachment to help keep a tally of chains measured, and a special dial of his own invention to convert ‘outs’ (five chains) into poles. As the surveyor turned the knob of the outkeeper, a numeric display counted from 0 to 16, while a needle on the dial moved from 0 to 320 in increments of 20, thus automatically converting the count into ‘poles’.

Goldsmith was a highly respected businessman. He was a volunteer fireman, sat as a Justice of the Bench, and is known to have drafted deeds and mortgages as well as acting as executor for various estates.

Goldsmith’s brothers, Ellis (1755-1816) and Isaac (1760-1813), worked together around the turn of the 19th C in Virginia, making clocks and surveyors’ instruments, with Ellis making the movements and Isaac doing the finishing. Isaac, who never married and was described in a local history as “labouring quietly in the moral and religious duties assigned to him,” may have worked for a time with a nephew after Ellis became less active.

The business failed to survive into a fifth generation, owing largely to rising competition from mass- produced wooden clocks.

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Further Reading and Credits

Six Quaker Clockmakers by Edward Chandlee 1943
Dixie Clockmakers (re Ellis and Isaac Chandlee); James Gibbs, 1979