Gottlieb Daimler’s “grandfather clock”: The hour had finally come

Oct 15, 2021-Stuttgart

  • In the 1880s, Daimler’s high-speed four-stroke engine set the pace for a new era
  • It was a key invention for individual mobility
  • A creation of the very best start-up spirit
  • Mercedes-Benz Museum Close-Up: Cars, Architecture and Exhibition Design No. 3/2021

Stuttgart. Close-Up – the name of the Mercedes-Benz Museum’s series says it all. Each instalment focuses on a vehicle, an exhibit or an architectural feature or design. Highlighting details, telling background stories as well as sharing exciting and stunning facts. With 160 vehicles and 1,500 exhibits, the Mercedes-Benz Museum is a vast treasure trove of stories and histories. In the spotlight in this part: the “grandfather clock” – Gottlieb Daimler’s single-cylinder engine from the 1880s.

No. 3/2021: “Grandfather clock”

Winter time: Summer time ends on the night of 30 to 31 October 2021. The clocks go back by one hour – officially this happens at 3 a.m., taking the time back to 2 a.m. Many people are happy about this: an extra hour’s sleep on a Sunday, how nice. A good 135 years ago, Gottlieb Daimler also brought about a time shift with his “grandfather clock”. Of course, this was not about telling the time. Back then, however, it clearly showed that the hour had come.

Pacesetter: The “grandfather clock” is the nickname given to Daimler’s first high-speed four-stroke engine. It is a central exhibit in Legend Room 1 of the Mercedes-Benz Museum: Pioneers – The invention of the automobile. A sculpture of striking appearance made of steel and brass, with an upright cylinder and round crankcase: it does indeed remotely resemble a grandfather clock. Right next to it is Daimler’s motor carriage and, in the background, all the other vehicles powered by the “grandfather clock”. It was this very special “clock” that ushered in the age of all-round individual mobility – even if this was not immediately apparent at the time.

Self-assured: In the summer of 1882, the 48-year-old inventor, Gottlieb Daimler, became a start-up entrepreneur. Equipped with sound technical knowledge and also a financial cushion from his previous managerial positions, most recently at Nicolaus Otto’s gas engine factory, Deutz AG, he had returned to his Swabian homeland. He brought with him the idea for a light, compact and powerful combustion engine that could also be installed in vehicles.

A business built in a garage: It was no different from today’s start-ups. Daimler was completely convinced that his idea would work, and energetically devoted himself to realising it in the summer house of his villa in Bad Cannstatt. At his side – as before – was the ingenious technician Wilhelm Maybach. However, the world around them remained sceptical, and the loud noises coming from the workshop even led to accusations that they were forging money. Something they were easily able to refute.

Revolutionary: On 16 December 1883, the time had come. Daimler patented his first pioneering engine, though it was initially still conceived as a stationary unit. The most important peripheral innovation was the hot-tube ignition devised by Maybach, which ensured reliable ignition and allowed the desired increase in engine speed. Other innovations included the float carburettor and the curved groove control for the exhaust valve. In 1884, the operating principle was transferred to a compact unit, the “grandfather clock”. In its first version, this power unit produced 0.74 kW (1 hp) at 600 rpm. That doesn’t sound like much? Far from it: at the time these key figures were sensational. The power output of other engines was similar, but they reached their speed limit at just 120 to 180 rpm. And these other engines were anything but light, compact and mobile.

All-round mobility: After this fundamental invention, Daimler continued to pursue his vision. He wanted to power means of transport of all kinds with his engine. The first experimental vehicle, the so-called “riding car”, consisted of a wooden frame with a scaled-down version of the “grandfather clock”, two wheels, a simple steering system and a seat. In 1885, this was the first vehicle to move by itself with the aid of his internal combustion engine – an “auto-mobile” in the sense of the corresponding Latin words. Daimler protected this invention with patent DRP 36 423 dated 29 August 1885, as a “vehicle with gas or petroleum engine”. At the same time, it was the world’s first motorcycle. From there, it was only a comparatively small step to the world’s first four-wheeled automobile, which was built in the summer of 1886: with the help of the “grandfather clock”, Daimler turned a horse-drawn carriage he had bought himself into his “motor carriage”.

Road to success: Gottlieb Daimler narrowly lost the race for the first automobile. Because another busy inventor and start-up entrepreneur patented his three-wheeled motor carriage in January 1886, the world’s first automobile: Carl Benz in Mannheim. But this did not detract from the success in Bad Cannstatt. As a clever businessman, Daimler knew how to apply his invention to sought-after products, and to consistently develop it further. He used his universal drive system on land, on water and in the air – and his vision of all-round mobility became a reality. He witnessed the early years of his company’s success – but did not live to see the huge success of the automobile. Daimler died on 6 March 1900 as a result of a heart condition.

Birthplace: So the story of the “grandfather clock” is an exciting one. But those who want to get a further taste of Gottlieb Daimler’s start-up spirit – in addition to visiting the Mercedes-Benz Museum – can also visit his original workshop. The greenhouse with its brick extension in Cannstatt still serves as a small museum to commemorate the extraordinary inventor. Admission is free of charge.