Unusual Clocks from the Past

Alright, enough politics for now. Back to what this blog is nominally supposed to be all about…

Keeping track of the time morning, noon, and night is one of the many things that we in the modern world take completely for granted. But before technology got us to that point, knowing what time it was became a vital problem for almost every civilization that had any ambition at all. The Egyptian method was at first just using the shadow of a obelisk to denote a rough “hour” but this was eventually refined into the first sundials (a great example of which goes back as far as 1500BCE).

The Greeks, being such massive fans of Egyptian culture and knowledge (and who wouldn’t be?) took this idea and ran with it, refining even further the sundial technology from Egypt by increasing the calculations needed to create a more “accurate” time keeper (one could only have a very general idea of the passing of time with even the best sundial. Good luck getting minutes or seconds, if you could even agree how long a “minute” is.) However, even the best sundial isn’t going to help you when it’s dark out. The Greek solution was the water clock, which has its own interesting history that I will not get into here.

While in Europe the Romans and then later the Muslims were trying to perfect the sundial/water clock combo (with varying degrees of success) other places were coming up with their own novel solutions.

During the Song Dynasty in China a unique method was developed using a ubiquitous Chinese item, incense. Much like the late European Candle Clocks, the Chinese developed a ‘fire clock” for evening time keeping. One example of this is pictured here and consists of a stick of incense with strings draped across it. As the stick burns, it breaks the strings, which have bells tied to the ends. This way the passing of time is noted with a alarm.

Neat as that is, I think the prize is going to have to go to the French inventor M. de Villayer. In The Discoverers Daniel Boorstin relates that Villayer decided to have his evening clock make use of a sense that had yet to be used at that point: Taste.

From page 36:

“He [Villayer] designed a clock so arranged that when he reached for the hour hand at night, it guided him to a small container with a spice inserted in place of numbers, a different spice for each hour of the night. Even when he could not see the clock, he could always taste the time.”


~ by herodotuswept on September 15, 2008.

One Response to “Unusual Clocks from the Past”

  1. omg r u sure tht is a clock

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