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Monday, June 11th, 2012

The Chess Clock – A History

In the very early days of chess, there were no time limits and players and spectators alike complained about the length of chess matches. In the 1800s, time limits were established and the chess timers and clocks were invented.

In 1843, several onlookers described a chess match between Howard Staunton and Pierre St. Amant as a test of physical endurance rather than a chess match. It was reported that their 21st match game took 66 moves and 14½ hours. These kinds of purposeless prolongations and deliberate attempts to fatigue and wear out the opponent were commonplace at the time, and an average game lasted nine hours.

At the first international chess tournament held in London in 1851, there were critics who complained of the slowness of play. Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa (1818-1889) was one of the first persons to propose that each player’s time should be limited by way of separate clocks or watches.

In 1852, an anonymous writer named A. Cantab wrote that sand glasses should be used to regulate the moves with a limited 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”. The idea was backed by Howard Staunton and other prominent chess players. Sand glasses were used in chess matches and tournaments from 1861 to 1875. However, temperature and humidity affect the sand in the sand glasses and was not very accurate. Also, a player would accidentally turn over the wrong end of his timer or his opponent’s timer and cause problems.

The first chess match that used a sand glass was the Anderssen – von Kolisch match, held in London in 1861. The time control was 24 moves in 2 hours.

In the early days, overstepping the time limit was not equivalent to losing a game. One could be fined, however.

Another idea was to use two watches and note the time consumed on each move by each opponent. Watches were used in chess events from 1866 to 1873.

In 1867, at the Paris International Tournament, the organizers imposed a fine of 5 francs for players for every 15 minutes over the regulation time limit of 10 moves in an hour.

In 1870 in Baden-Baden, chess timers were first used. The time control was 20 moves per hour. The chess players had the option of using a sand glass or a chess clock.

By 1883, a mechanical timing device had been invented, called the “tumbling” chess clock. It was first used at a London tournament that year. 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 tumbling clock was manufactured by Fattorini & Sons of Bradford, England. The time control at the London tournament was 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. These clocks were being used by 1886 in most tournaments.

In 1886, Schierwater and Frisch of Liverpool patented a chess clock that 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.

In 1894, tumbler chess clocks were used during the Steinitz-Lasker match for the world championship in New York.

In 1889, a chess flag was added to the chess clock by H.D.B. Meijer, the Secretary of the Dutch Chess Federation. The ‘flag’ was suspended above the 3rd minute before 12 o’clock. This made it easier to see when your time ran out as the flag became elevated with the second hand until it fell at time control. It took about 20 years before the use of flags became common.

The Jaques “Chess Timing Clock” was introduced in the 1890s and sold for 21 shillings.

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.

Almost all chess tournaments today use digital clocks due to the different time controls with delay or time increments added to a clock. The analog clock may be a thing of the past.

–Bill Wall


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