A Brief History of Ancient Clocks

Clocks have been around for millennia. Today we see clocks in our homes and we take them for granted…but without these timekeeping machines, our lives would be exponentially harder, having to rely on nature’s ever-changing signals such as sunsets and sunrises. The sun’s movement is only an estimate of time, as seasons change the sun’s behaviour does too, due to the Earth’s oval shape.

The first time-measuring device was created more than four millennia ago. The first sundial was created in ancient Egypt 4000 years ago. A few have actually survived until today, specifically one from 800 BC has survived. It’s quite difficult to have accurate measurements of time with sundials for the aforementioned reasons of seasons.

At the same time, other methods of timekeeping started to emerge, including “clepsydrae”–hourglasses. This is more equivalent to a stopwatch or timer rather than a clock.

Fast-forwarding to thousands of years from the Ancient Egyptians to the Chinese, just under a thousand years ago: Su Song (a Buddhist monk) created a huge clock tower after 6 years of hard labour.  How does this clock work? This clock was a huge water wheel, powered by the flow of water of course. Albeit this clock would be extremely ineffective with today’s technology, it was a step forward for the advancement of clocks in ancient China. Shame it was destroyed shortly after by barbarians.

In the 13th and 14th centuries clockwork had made its way to Europe. The goals here were both on a divine level (to see the movement of the stars) and a practical everyday level (to measure time of tasks and arrange everyday tasks efficiently). The timekeeping devices around this time were based on teeth being manipulated by weight. One of the world’s oldest surviving clocks is from the 14th century, the Salisbury cathedral clock. No face is present, it is just for striking the hours.

In 1392 the bishop of Wells (formerly Salisbury’s) installed a clock from the same engineer in the Wells cathedral.

After this, clocks had started becoming smaller and essentially evolved into the domestic clocks we own today.

Antonella Murphy

I've always been a clock enthusiast, so I decided to join my mates to create Clock Selection. Straight out of Birmingham!

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