Chess clock

Chess clock by Fattorini & Sons of Bradford – £6000 at Burstow & Hewett.

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At a time when matches could be a test of physical endurance (something close to nine hours was the norm), the calls for curtailment became louder.

The 1861 match played in London between Adolf Anderssen and Ignatz von Kolisch was the first at which time limits were imposed. An hourglass was used to ensure a minimum of 24 moves were played in the first two hours of each game.

The first proper chess clock arrived two decades later. Thomas Bright Wilson (1843-1915), secretary of the Manchester Chess Club is credited with its invention. He put two pendulum-driven timekeepers on a ‘see-saw’ with the beam causing one clock to start and another to stop as it was rocked back and forth.

The manufacturer was Fattorini & Sons of Bradford – a firm best known as a maker of sporting trophies (including the FA Cup and the Rugby League Challenge Cup) and competition medals. The device was first used for the London 1883 international tournament, an event convincingly won by Johannes Zukertort ahead of runner-up Wilhelm Steinitz.

Chess clock

A detail of the chess clock by Fattorini & Sons of Bradford – £6000 at Burstow & Hewett.

Most surviving examples of the Fattorini chess clock, made until 1904, assume the form seen in an advertisement published in British Chess Magazine of 1897. These gothic-style clocks with Roman numerals were priced at 12s 6d each and used in all the Masters International and National Tournaments, North versus South of England, and all important County and Club matches’. They are scarce but do occasionally come up for sale. Most recently one took £2600 at Reeman Dansie of Colchester in March 2020.

The Fattorini clock offered by Burstow & Hewett in Battle, East Sussex, on January 26 is a little different. Although the cast-iron base and rocker are much the same as the ‘gothic’ model, the timekeepers with Arabic numerals are much more like carriage clocks. To the back of each are a series of patent dates for 1880 suggesting an earlier version or prototype. Indeed, it is precisely a chess clock of this distinct type that appears in an engraving of the 1883 match between Zukertort and Steinitz.

It was in visibly poor condition but is evidently very rare. Estimated at £80-120, it attracted international bidding from chess collectors before selling to a Dutch buyer at £6000 (plus 20% buyer’s premium).