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Getting Started In Chess: Part 6 – Chess Clocks A History

I’ve saved one of my favorite pieces of chess equipment for last. The clock! Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but there is just something special about a chess clock that I can’t explain. I will probably need to break this topic into multiple posts. The more I researched the chess clock the more I realized I didn’t know. I plan on covering a little history, some rules, and a few of the most popular time controls that are used. This post will focus on the history of the chess clock.

Mid 1800’s

Let’s explore where we came from to appreciate where we are. Obviously the chess clock,  just like chess itself, has evolved over time. However, if we go back to pre-1861 we would find a chess world without clocks. During that era of chess, matches were not time-boxed. In 1843, a chess match between Howard Staunton and Pierre St. Amant took 66 moves and 14½ hours. Games that lasted this long were uncommon, but nothing in the rules prohibited a player from attempting to use the tactic of purposelessly prolonging a game. These deliberate attempts to fatigue and wear out the opponent was commonplace at the time, and an average game lasted nine hours.

It was proposed in 1852 that sand glasses should be used to control how long games were taking by introducing a time limit.

“Let each player have a three-hour sand glass at his elbow and a friend on either side to turn it. While the player is thinking, the sand must be allowed to run; while his opponent is thinking, his glass will be laid horizontally on the table and the running suspended”.

This was the beginning of making chess more spectator-friendly by adding time pressure as an additional game constraint. Sand glasses were used in chess matches and tournaments from 1861 to 1875. The first chess match that used a sand glass was the Anderssen – von Kolisch match, held in London in 1861. However, sand glasses were not very accurate, and the mechanics of turning the sand glass over resulted in the wrong clock being turned over or tuned over the wrong way.

During the sandglass era, an alternative method of monitoring the game time was proposed. In 1866 it was suggested to use two watches and note the time consumed on each move by each opponent. Watches were used between 1866 to 1873.

Late 1800’s

In 1883 the mechanical “tumbling” chess clock was invented. It was invented by Thomas Bright Wilson (1843-1915) of Manchester, England, with the advice of Joseph Henry Blackburne. It consisted of two identical pendulum clocks set on opposite ends of a balance beam. When one player made his move, he moved the clock into a position that stopped its pendulum and started his opponent’s timer. The clock was first used at a London tournament with a time control of 15 moves per hour. For the first time, a player exceeding his time limit forfeited the game.

In 1884, the first patent for a chess clock was issued to Amandus Schierwater of Liverpool. This evolutionary step in the chess clock showed the ordinary time, but registered on separate dials the period occupied by the players. It also indicated the number of moves in a game and whose turn it was to play. The expiration of time was indicated by the ringing of a bell.

20th Century

After Schierwater’s patent improvements arrived periodically as the chess clock became the standard for chess tournaments. Here is a quick overview of the milestones that are important during the 20th century (Time line provided by http://www.chessmaniac.com/the-chess-clock-a-history/ ) :

  • The Jaques “Chess Timing Clock” was introduced in the 1890s and sold for 21 shillings. (Wish I could have picked up a couple of these)
  • In 1900, the analog push-button chess clock was perfected by Veenhoff of Groningen.
  • In 1950, Borcherdt GmbH or BHB, was established in Germany and became the leading manufacturer of chess clocks in the world. The company lasted until 1989.
  • In 1964, the first electronic chess clock was manufactured by a Russian firm, the Kiev Relay and Automatic Works.
  • In 1973, the first digital chess clock was created by Bruce Cheney, a Cornell University Electrical Engineering student.
  • In 1975, the first patent was granted to Joe Meshi on a fully operational, microprocessor-based, digital chess clock.
  • In 1988, Bobby Fischer patented (#4,884,255) a new digital chess clock that gave each player a fixed period of time at the start of the game and then added a small amount of time after each move. The clock was used in the 1992 Fischer-Spassky return match in Yugoslavia. Prior to the match, a working model had never been constructed. A Fischer chess clock was made for the event in five days.

Modern tournaments require a digital clock with time delays and increments becoming the standard. Every tournament I have attended has seen a rapid decline in the use of mechanical clocks.

Thank you for reading to the end. I hope your day is blessed and your chess games sharp!

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