It is not clear who built the first cuckoo clocks in the Black Forest but there is unanimity that the unusual clock with the bird call very quickly conquered the region. Already by the middle of the 18th century, several small clockmaking shops produced cuckoo clocks with wooden gears. So the first Black Forest examples were created between 1740 and 1750. The earliest Black Forest examples had shields decorated with paper.
It is hard to judge how large the proportion of cuckoo clocks was among the total production of modern movement Black Forest clocks. Based on the proportions of pieces surviving to the present, it must have been a small fraction of the total production.
Regarding its murky origins, there are two main fables from the first two chroniclers of Black Forest horology which tell contradicting stories about it:
The first is from Father Franz Steyrer, written in his “Geschichte der Schwarzwälder Uhrmacherkunst” (History of the Art of Clockmaking in the Black Forest) in 1796. He describes a meeting between two clock peddlers from Furtwangen (a town in the Black Forest) who met a travelling Bohemian merchant who sold wooden cuckoo clocks. Both the Furtwangen traders were so excited that they bought one. On bringing it home they copied it and showed their imitation to other Black Forest clock traders. Its popularity grew in the region and more and more clockmakers started producing them. With regard to this chronicle, the historian Adolf Kistner claimed in his book “Die Schwarzwälder Uhr” (The Black Forest Clock) published in 1927, that there is not any Bohemian cuckoo clock in existence to verify the thesis that this clock was used as a sample to copy and produce Black Forest cuckoo clocks. Bohemia had no fundamental clockmaking industry during that period.
The second story is related by another priest, Markus Fidelis Jäck, in a passage extracted from his report “Darstellungen aus der Industrie und des Verkehrs aus dem Schwarzwald” (Descriptions of the Industry and the Traffic of the Black Forest), (1810) said as follows: “The cuckoo clock was invented (in 1730) by a clock-master [Franz Anton Ketterer] from Schönwald [literally “Beautiful Forest”, i.e. the Black Forest]. This craftsman adorned a clock with a moving bird that announced the hour with the cuckoo-call. The clock-master got the idea of how to make the cuckoo-call from the bellows of a church organ”. As time went on, the second version became the more popular, and is the one generally related today. Unfortunately, neither Steyrer nor Jäck quote any sources for their claims, making them unverifiable.
On the other side, R. Dorer pointed out, in 1948, that Franz Anton Ketterer (1734–1806) could not have been the inventor of the cuckoo clock in 1730 because he had not yet been born.
This statement was corroborated by Gerd Bender in the most recent edition of the first volume of his work Die Uhrenmacher des hohen Schwarzwaldes und ihre Werke (The Clockmakers of the High Black Forest and their Works) (1998) in which he wrote that the cuckoo clock was not native to the Black Forest and also stated that: “There are no traces of the first production line of cuckoo clocks made by Ketterer”.
However, Schaaf in Schwarzwalduhren (Black Forest Clocks) (1995), provides his own research which leads to the earliest cuckoos having been built in the Franken-Niederbayern area (“Franconia and Lower Bavaria”, in the southeast of Germany, forming nowadays the northern two-thirds of the Free State of Bavaria), in the direction of Bohemia (nowadays the main region of the Czech Republic), which he notes, lends credence to the Steyrer version.