Back to Blog
Leaders in Innovation

Joseph Saxton and the Belfry Clock

An industrious inventor, machinist and watchmaker, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Joseph Saxton is credited with inventing a number of important measuring devices, including a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of fluids. Though his measuring devices earned him induction into NIHF, his creation of the belfry clock at Independence Hall, the place where both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, cemented his place in American history.

Though he had no formal scientific training, throughout his life, Saxton was an influential innovator in a variety of fields, earning him membership into the Franklin Institute and National Academy of Sciences.

In celebration of July 4, we invite you to learn about Saxton’s belfry clock and his accomplished career as an inventor.


Early Apprenticeships and Success

Saxton was born on March 22, 1799, in Huntington, Pennsylvania. From an early age, Saxton was interested in working with his hands. After leaving school at 12 years old to work at his father’s factory, he began an apprenticeship under a local watchmaker named David Newingham. This experience helped him develop a deep interest in precision craftsmanship.

Newingham passed away soon after Saxton had begun learning from him, so Saxton decided to move to Philadelphia in hopes of making use of his training. While there, he worked a series of jobs including that of a watchmaker, an engraver and an apprentice machinist under the guidance of Isaiah Lukens. Saxton’s early jobs led to the creation of his first inventions: an escapement and compensating pendulum for clocks and a machine for cutting the teeth of marine chronometers.

These experiences culminated in Saxton’s construction of the belfry clock for the newly rebuilt chapel within Independence Hall. The clock was constructed with four copper dials, each measuring 8 feet in diameter and was the first four-faced steeple clock in the tower of Independence Hall.


A Productive Inventor

Following Saxton’s successes in Philadelphia, in 1828 he moved to London, England, where he would live for nine years. There, he landed a job working for the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science, a public museum that demonstrated new inventions and scientific principles of the time. While working at the museum, he developed multiple inventions including the fountain pen, riflescope, magneto-electric machine and reflecting pyrometer – the latter allowed him to complete the first comprehensive survey of the United States coastline.

Saxton returned to Philadelphia in 1837 and accepted a position at the Philadelphia Mint, where he designed balances used to verify standard weights in government offices.

Two years later, in the fall of 1839, he used a daguerreotype, the first commercially successful photographic process, to take what is widely considered the first known photograph taken within the United States.

In 1843, Saxton was appointed the superintendent of weights and measures for the United States Coast Survey, and in 1854, he invited a self-registering tide gauge believed to be the first gauge to record an earthquake. Saxton continued working for the United States Coast Survey until his passing on Oct. 26, 1873.


Discover More Inspiring Inventors

For more stories of Hall of Famers whose work has shaped industries and benefited our society, we invite you to visit our blog.

Related Articles