William Claggett (1696-1749) was born in England or Wales, the son of a baker about whom little else is known. As a youth, he migrated with his family to Boston, served an apprenticeship to clockmaker Benjamin Bagnall, and at age nineteen, married Mary Armstrong in a ceremony presided over by Cotton Mather. His son William, who also became a noted clockmaker, was born in 1715.
Around 1716, Claggett came to Newport, where he lived and worked for the next thirty-three years until he died in 1749 at his home on 16 Bridge Street. In cosmopolitan Newport, Claggett gained recognition not only as a clock and watchmaker and repairer but also as an organ builder, engraver, compass maker, printer, lecturer, author, notary public, founder of a fire company, and experimenter in the new field of electricity.
In the 1740s, Claggett built a large electrical machine that he used for experimental purposes. Many curious New Englanders paid to view the device, and Claggett donated much of the large amount of money raised from the machine’s exhibition to charitable causes. According to an account of this venture by Dr. Arthur Ross, Claggett probably demonstrated the device to longtime acquaintance Benjamin Franklin, who later improved upon Claggett’s technology. Historian Ross even credits Claggett with arousing Franklin’s interest in electricity. The noted Philadelphian, the younger brother and one-time apprentice of Newport printer James Franklin, began his experiments with electricity in 1746 when Claggett was exhibiting his invention to the citizens of Newport and Boston.
Today, Claggett is best remembered as the premier clockmaker of colonial Rhode Island. His tall case (or grandfather) clocks are the most notable, which command high prices today. At the turn of this century, George Richardson, then secretary of the Newport Historical Society and a descendant of Claggett, listed eighteen surviving William Claggett clocks, all in the immediate area of Newport. Another tally in 1975 lists fifty-one signed by William Claggett, but whether by William I, William II (his son), or William III (his grandson) is uncertain. In addition to these, Claggett made the original tower clock for Newport’s Trinity Church. Evidence of Claggett’s craftsmanship as a clockmaker can be viewed today at both the Newport Historical Society and the Rhode Island Historical Society, where Claggett clocks are on display. An article by Richard L. Champlin entitled “William Claggett and His Clockmaking Family,” published in Newport History, was enlarged and reprinted in 1976 in the Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.
William Claggett was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.