Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pinchbeck, Christopher
PINCHBECK, CHRISTOPHER (1670?–1732), clockmaker, and inventor of the copper and zinc alloy called after his name, was born about 1670, probably in Clerkenwell, London. The family doubtless sprang from a small town called Pinchbeck in Lincolnshire. In ‘Applebee's Weekly Journal,’ 8 July 1721, it was announced ‘that Christopher Pinchbeck, inventor and maker of the famous astronomico-musical clocks, is removed from St. George's Court [now Albion Place], St. Jones's Lane [i.e. St. John's Lane], to the sign of the “Astronomico-Musical Clock” in Fleet Street, near the Leg Tavern. He maketh and selleth watches of all sorts, and clocks, as well plain, for the exact indication of time only, as astronomical, for showing the various motions and phenomena of planets and fixed stars.’ Mention is also made of musical automata, in imitation of singing birds, and barrel-organs for churches as among Pinchbeck's manufactures. The advertisement is surmounted by a woodcut representing an astronomical clock of elaborate construction with several dials.
Pinchbeck was in the habit of exhibiting collections of his automata at fairs, sometimes in conjunction with a juggler named Fawkes, and he entitled his stall the ‘Temple of the Muses,’ ‘Grand Theatre of the Muses,’ or ‘Multum in Parvo.’ The ‘Daily Journal,’ 27 Aug. 1729, announced that the Prince and Princess of Wales went to Bartholomew Fair to see his exhibition (cf. advertisements in Daily Post, 12 June 1729, and Daily Journal, 22 and 23 Aug. 1729). There is a large broadside in the British Museum Library (1850, c. 10, 71), headed ‘Multum in Parvo,’ relating to Pinchbeck's exhibition, with a blank left for the place and date, evidently intended for use as a poster. The collection of satirical prints and drawings in the print room (No. 2537) contains an engraving representing a fair, and over one of the booths is the name ‘Pinchbeck.’ His clocks are referred to in George Vertue's ‘Diary’ for 1732 (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 81). No contemporary mention of his invention of the metal called after him has been discovered.
He died on 18 Nov. 1732, and was buried on the 21st in St. Dunstan's Church, Fleet Street (cf. Gent. Mag. 1732, p. 1083). There is an engraved portrait by I. Faber, after a painting by Isaac Whood, a reproduction of which appears in Britten's ‘Former Clock and Watch Makers’ (p. 122). His will, dated 10 Nov. 1732, was proved in London on 18 Nov.
Edward Pinchbeck (fl. 1732), eldest son of Christopher, was born in 1713, and succeeded to his father's business, as appears by an advertisement in the ‘Daily Post,’ 27 Nov. 1732, in which it is notified ‘that the toys made of the late ingenious Mr. Pinchbeck's curious metal … are now sold only by his son and sole executor, Mr. Edward Pinchbeck.’ This settles the question as to the invention of pinchbeck, which is sometimes attributed to Christopher Pinchbeck, jun. Another of Edward Pinchbeck's long advertisements appears in the ‘Daily Post,’ 11 July 1733. Both indicate the great variety of articles in which he dealt. He was baptised at St. Dunstan's Church, Fleet Street, on 7 April 1738, when his age was twenty-five, but the date of his death is not recorded.
Christopher (1710?–1783), second son of Christopher Pinchbeck the elder, was born about 1710, and possessed great mechanical ingenuity. He was a member, and at one time president, of the Smeatonian Society, the precursor of the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1762 he devised a self-acting pneumatic brake for preventing accidents to the men employed in working wheel cranes, for which the Society of Arts awarded him a gold medal (Trans. Soc. Arts, iv. 183). A full description is given in W. Bailey's ‘Description of the Machines in the Repository of the Society of Arts’ (1782, i. 146). The brake was fitted to several cranes on the Thames wharves, and an account of an inspection of one at Billingsgate, by a committee of the Society of Arts, is given in the ‘Annual Register,’ 1767, pt. i. p. 90. It is recorded in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ June 1765, p. 296, that Messrs. Pinchbeck and Norton had made a complicated astronomical clock for ‘the Queen's House,’ some of the calculations for the wheelwork having been made by James Ferguson, the astronomer. There is no proof that Pinchbeck and Norton were ever in partnership, and there are two clocks answering to the description now at Buckingham Palace, one by Pinchbeck, with four dials and of very complicated construction, and the other by Norton.
Pinchbeck took out three patents, in all of which he is described as of ‘Cockspur Street in the parish of St. Martin's in the Fields, toyman and mechanician.’ The first (No. 892), granted in 1768, was for an improved candlestick, with a spring socket for holding the candle firmly, and an arrangement whereby the candle always occupied an upright position, however the candlestick might be held. In 1768 (No. 899) he patented his ‘nocturnal remembrancer,’ a series of tablets with notches to serve as guides for writing in the dark. His patent snuffers (No. 1119, A.D. 1776) continued to be made in Birmingham until the last forty years or so, when snuffers began to go out of use. The contrivance inspired an ‘Ode to Mr. Pinchbeck, upon his newly invented Candle Snuffers’ by ‘Malcolm MacGreggor’ (i.e. William Mason), a fifth edition of which appeared in 1777. In 1774 he presented to the Society of Arts a model of a plough for mending roads (Transactions, i. 312; Bailey, Description of Machines, &c. ii. 21). Pinchbeck's name first appears in the ‘London Directory’ for 1778, when it replaces that of ‘Richard Pinchbeck, toyman,’ of whom nothing is recorded. Christopher Pinchbeck was held in considerable esteem by George III, and he figures in Wilkes's ‘London Museum,’ ii. 33 (1770), in a ‘list of the party who call themselves the king's friends,’ and also as a member of ‘the Buckingham House Cabinet.’ He is called ‘Pinchbeck, toyman and turner.’ He seems in fact to have been a butt for the small wits of the day, and a writer in the ‘London Evening Post,’ 19–21 Nov. 1772, p. 4, suggests that ‘if the Royal Society are not Scotchified enough to elect Sir W. Pringle their president, another of the king's friends is to be nominated—no less a person than the noted Pinchbeck, buckle and knick-knack maker to the king.’ In 1776 there appeared anonymously ‘An Elegiac Epistle from an unfortunate Elector of Germany to his friend Mr. Pinchbeck,’ almost certainly by William Mason. The king is supposed to have been kidnapped and carried to Germany, and he begs Pinchbeck to assist him in regaining his liberty, suggesting among other devices that Pinchbeck should make him a pair of mechanical wings. He is also mentioned in ‘Pro-Pinchbeck's Answer to the Ode from the Author of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers,’ 1776, probably also by William Mason. He died on 17 March 1783, aged 73 (Ann. Reg. 1783, p. 200; Gent. Mag. liii. 273), and was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. His will, which is very curious, is printed in full in the ‘Horological Journal,’ November 1895. One of his daughters married William Hebb, who was described as son-in-law and successor to the late Mr. Pinchbeck, at his shop in Cockspur Street’ (imprint on Pinchbeck's portrait), and whose son, Christopher Henry Hebb (1772–1861), practised as a surgeon in Worcester (ib. new ser. xi. 687). In a letter preserved among the Duke of Bedford's papers (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. App. p. 14), Lord Harcourt says that in 1784 he ‘bought at Westminster from Pinchbeck's son, who had bought in some of his father's trumpery,’ portraits of Raleigh and of Prior for a guinea each.
There is a portrait of Christopher Pinchbeck the younger by Cunningham, engraved by W. Humphrey.
[Authorities cited, and Wood's Curiosities of Clocks and Watches, p. 121; Britten's Former Clock and Watch Makers, p. 121; Noble's Memorials of Temple Bar; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 241.]