Powered by Clockwork

Updated: 8 Feb 2013

Clockwork cars
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Clockwork power, in the sense of energy storage by a coiled spring, is one of the oldest means of applying power known to man, being invented between 1500 and 1510 by Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. The most common use of clockwork was in, er, clocks, but this page restricts itself to its attempted use as a propulsive power.


Robert Whitehead is well-known as the originator of that boon to mankind, the torpedo. He was born in Little Bolton in 1823, into a family of engineers. By 1864 he was manager of an engineering company in Fuime, near Trieste, which did work for the Austrian Navy. Whitehead and an Austrian Navy Captain, Giovanni de Luppis, collaborated on an unmanned self-propelled boat designed to blow up blockading warships. It was called the "Der Kustenbrander" ie The Coastal Fire Ship. Whitehead tried for several months to help Luppis with his invention but they failed to come up with a practical weapon, there being serious problems with the clockwork engine and the tiller steering.

Left: The Clockwork Kustenbrander

This is a picture of a model of the craft. No pictures of the real thing are known to exist. The propellor and rudder are on the right.

Regrettably I have so far found no details of the engine, but I strongly suspect it was very short on both power and endurance. Whitehead later used compressed-air to power his torpedoes; as with the clockwork tram described below, clockwork was superseded by air as the latter proved to be a much more effective "spring" for energy storage, despite the losses inherent in compressing air and throwing away the heat generated by doing it.


Unlikely as it may seem... it has at least once been seriously proposed to transport people by means of clockwork. Here is the only example I have found so far.

A clockwork tram was built by Thomas Middleton and Co, of Southwark, London, to the design of a Belgian, E H Leveaux. It was used to haul a tramcar at the Lillie Bridge depot of the Metropolitan and District Railway (London) in May 1875, reaching a maximum speed of 7 mph over a half-mile run. Experiments continued into 1876, but were then abandoned.

Unfortunately no technical details are available at present. Presumably there was something like an enormous clockspring, but how was it wound up? By a stationary steam engine?
The compressed-air trams used the same principle, in a sense, as the elasticity of the compressed air can be regarded as a sort of spring. They, however had a much greater range and were reasonably successful.

If anyone could shed more light on this murky corner of transportation history I would be most interested to hear about it.


Almost every conceivable form of power was used on early motor cars. Some stored energy rather than generating it (as in a petrol engine) and the most successful of these were electric cars, which carried around a heavy load of rechargeable batteries, as indeed they still do today. Less promising storage methods were carbonic acid (carbon dioxide) under pressure, and compressed air. Even less promising was the use of clockwork, where the power to be stored had to be applied in mechanical form rather than by filling a tank.

Left: Clockwork car: pre-1895

An unidentified man on a spring driven vehicle at some date before 1895. The vehicle was driven by four large springs, presumably of the clock type, mounted inside what appears to be a cylindrical housing at the rear. It could go three miles on one winding, but just how much effort was required for that winding is not currently known.

Left: Clockwork car: 1890

This three-seat clockwork car was built by Ingersoll Moore, of Bloomimgton, IL. It was driven by four clockwork motors, each having three flat coiled springs. These were connected by gearing and all could be wound up by a lever on the driver's right side. Double action ratchets allowed the lever to wind the springs as it was moved in either direction. This must have been extremely hard work as you were effectively rowing the car along with one hand. No details of its range are currently known.

Regrettably the picture is of poor quality.

Attempts to track down Mr Ingersoll Moore threw up only this intriguing fragment:

"ON a cold November evening in 1895, I went to the country to bring in a young cow. As I was leading her along, she took a notion to run, dragging and throwing me head foremost into a barbed wire fence. When I reached home an hour later, I found my face was cut in several places, a piece of flesh torn out of one cheek by the barbed wire, and one ear torn so that the lower lobe was separated and hung down.
"My wife and daughter, not feeling competent to handle the case at that time, called a Scientist healer. We tied a cloth over the wound to cover it up, and Christian Science did the rest. Four days later I went to work and kept right on as usual, with but little inconvenience. The ear came together, the cheek filled out, and the scar has already disappeared. Ingersoll Moore, Bloomington, Ill."

The name is absolutely correct, and the date fits, but unfortunately all we learn is that Mr Ingersoll Moore was a a farmer and a Christian Scientist.


To engineers of a certain age, Meccano holds some poignant memories. Clockwork motors were available to power the models. Here are a couple that I have.

Left: The big Meccano motor

This motor was produced in the late Fifties; I have not been able to positively identify the model number, but I think it is the reversing version of motor No 1.

The lower lever is the stop/start control, and the upper lever gives forward or reverse. It still works perfectly. There is a simple centrifugal governor which gives roughly constant speed despite varying torque from the spring; a single little weight moves outwards until it rubs on the inside of a metal cup.

This motor is quite an impressive bit of engineering, but I have to say it was never used after I got my E15R electric motor.

Left: Inside the big Meccano motor

A: Output shaft
B: Reversing mechanism
C: Governor

The stop/start lever at the bottom works by pressing on a disc on the governor shaft.

Left: The small Meccano motor

My first motor! This little item was called the "Meccano Magic Motor". It was not exactly powerful.

Unfortunately there seems to be something wrong with the spring or winding system on my example.

For more on Meccano clockwork motors see here:



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