A History of Timekeeping

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Measuring the passage of time has been a continual challenge to mankind. Throughout history we have created increasingly intricate devices to give us an accurate idea of the time but all of our modern methods of time keeping can all be traced back to the Sun travelling across the sky.

The first device to measure the passage of time was the Sundial, using shadows cast by a tall objects people could get an approximation of the time. The earliest Sundials historians have found are older than 6000 years. In 3500BC the Ancient Egyptians used large stone Obelisks aligned with the celestial pole as gigantic Sundials.

Technology did not move on for several thousand years, and when it did it came in the form of water. Egyptians discovered that the flow of water was regular enough to keep time and they immediately saw the advantages of water clocks over Sundials, as they could tell the time at night and in poor weather. The oldest known water clock was built at the Tomb of Amenhotep I in about 1500BC. Hundreds of years later water clocks were still in use, particularly by the Ancient Greeks who, in 400BC, used more accurate water clocks known as Clepsydras.

After the fall of the Roman Empire much of the technology behind timekeeping was lost and instead slaves were used to keep time by transferring stones, one at a time, from one helmet to another.

It was not until hundreds of years later that a French monk named Luitprand rediscovered the lost art of glass blowing in about 800AD, and because of this he is attributed as the creator of sandglasses. Legend tells of King Charlemagne possessing a huge sandglass which took twelve hours before it needed turning, with hourly divisions down its side.

Candles have also played their part in the telling of time. In 980AD King Alfred the Great used burning candles to tell the time, with markers down its side to depict times for studies, prayer, duties and rest. And from about 1000AD the Chinese used candles and ornate incense sticks to show the passage of time.

Mechanical clocks did not start appearing until about 1285AD, back then they were merely devices to let monks know when the correct time to ring the church bell was.

Although Sandglasses had been around for a few hundred years at this point it was not until about 1300AD that sandglasses became popular in Europe, particularly by sea farers from northern Italy.

The first public mechanical Clock was built into a church in Milan around 1335, it only had one hand for the hours, and it travelled clockwise to mimic the path of a sundial shadow.

Around the 1500s mechanical Clocks were slowly becoming more commonplace, however back then they were expensive cutting-edge technology compared to the simpler Sandglasses that were used throughout Europe. Churches and kitchens were often home to these classic timekeeping devices. They were even used in politics with public speeches, academic lectures and town meetings all being timed with Sandglasses. Even the House of Commons used a two minute sandglass for voting and it is rumoured the Spanish Inquisition used them for timing torture sessions.

Expense was not the only factor limiting the prevalence of mechanical Clocks, as they frequently needed maintenance and repairs. In an effort to improve this Peter Henlein from Germany invented the spring powered clock in 1510. However these clocks never kept an accurate time as they constantly slowed down, until the technology was improved by Jacob Zech of Prague who invented the Fusee or spiral pulley in 1525 which improved the clocks timekeeping.

At this point clocks still only measured the passing of hours, and it was not until 1577 that Jost Burgi invented the first clock that had a minute hand. Unfortunately the minute hand was never that accurate.

Although he never used it in a timepiece, Galileo proved in 1583, that successive swings of a pendulum always takes the same length of time, regardless of the distance the pendulum swings. It was not until Dutch astronomer Christopher Huygens used Galileos discovery of the pendulum to invent the first pendulum clock in 1656, whose minute hand was the most accurate yet.

Improvements in the Pendulum Clock lead to another leap forward in time keeping. Around 1685 the increased use of Huygens pendulum clocks allowed for timekeeping devices which can count seconds for the first time in history.

In Germany Franz Anton Ketterer uses pipes in his clocks for a two tone cuckoo noise in about 1750, and the first Cuckoo Clocks are made.

Time keeping remained the same for a while; until 1839 the Telegraph was invented, allowing the instant transmission of time signals. This, along with the increased use of Railroads, led to a big change to the measurement of time. As people were travelling rapidly in east-west directions, particularly across America, they discovered that time changed the further you travelled. Rail companies struggled to keep accurate schedules and for a while the world was thrown into a state of chaos.

In 1883 two trains collided in America because the train timetables didnt account for the change in time across different states. This disastrous event called for an immediate and critical change in time measurement. After the horrific head on train crash, the Prime Meridian conference rationalized real time over 15 degree zones, or time zones, and also set Greenwich Meridian as the starting line in 1884.

Whilst looking for more reliable ways of keeping time, Warren Marrison, a Canadian born engineer developed the worlds first quartz clock in 1927. Despite the clocks large size, Marrison proved that it was more accurate than any timepiece that had come before and Time Standard laboratories across the world abandoned their mechanical clocks in favour of quartz powered clocks.

In 1949 the International Bureau of Standards builds the first atomic clock which is so accurate it proves that the Earths orbit around the sun is slightly irregular. This led to a drastic rethinking of how time should be measured. For the first point in history the measurement of time is based on something other than the Earths orbit around the Sun. In 1967 a second is formally defined as 9,192,631,770 vibrations of a caesium atom.

Today quartz powered Clocks and Watches are everywhere, and Radio Controlled Clocks now get the correct time transmitted to them from Atomic Clocks. Clocks have become so much more than devices to tell the passage of time, with many of them being decorative centrepieces to buildings and rooms that combine function with form to produce truly striking ornaments.

There are currently hundreds of companies worldwide producing a huge range of timepieces, from wall clocks, mantel clocks, alarm clocks all the way to digital alarms and stop watches. However manufacturing methods have come a long way since the invention of the first mechanical clock, and the art of crafting ornamental clocks is getting lost. One company who still maintains this art is Newgate Clocks. Founded in 1991 Newgate has gone forward to become a world leader in decorative wall clocks and mantel clocks. Visit their website to discover why.

 

 

Newgate Clocks, the official online shop to purchase Clocks, Mantel Clocks, Alarm Clocks, Wall Clocks and Mirrors!

 

 

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