Friday, January 20, 2012

Time - a timeline of clocks

by Deborah Swift

When writing historical fiction, as well as going back in time to the period I am writing about, I often have to consider that the notion of how time was measured in previous times is very different from my own. In the 17th century poorer people still used sand-glasses, and not everyone could afford a clock in their house. Churches rang the bells so that people had some sense of the time passing, but in general people were much less fixated on exact times than we are today.

The first clock was of course the sun, and the position of the stars in the night sky.

The first recorded mention of the sun dial was in 742 BC. There is, however, evidence of use of the sun dial as early as 2,000 BC! The carved stone on the left (bring your own stick) is from the Dingle Peninsula, Ireland.

By 330 AD Sand glasses were thought to be in use, the example I have shown is from 1830, as the hand-blown glass was very fragile, and few survived. These used to be made in different sizes to measure different amounts of time.Some could be large enough to stand on the ground and require servants to lift and turn them.

Candles with the wax scored to mark the time were widely used in poorer households who could not afford a sandglass, or sometimes candles fixed to a marked plate as in the example on the left. There is evidence that Alfred the Great used a candle clock in  885AD. 

In 1490 the mainspring was invented by Peter Hele, or Henlein, a locksmith of Nuremburg. About this time the small domestic, or table clock made its appearance, but these were expensive items and the previous more homespun methods of measuring the time continued to be used by most people.

Here is a fabulous example from Made as a 'masterpiece', (a requirement for admission to the guild of master clockmakers in Augsburg,) this clock strikes the hours and quarters and displays no less than three systems of counting hours: French hours (I–XII), Italian hours (1–24, beginning at sundown), and Nuremberg hours (divided into daylight and night hours, which vary in number according to the season of the year). Complex!

In 1541 an astronomical clock was fixed in one of the towers of Hampton Court Palace.

By 1610 Glass was able to be moulded to form as a protective cover for watch dials.

In 1657 Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch Physicist, made the first pendulum controlled clock, and grandfather clocks began to make their appearance in wealthier homes. The two kinds of movements are 30-hour and eight day, which indicates how long before the clock has to be wound with a key. The melody, bell, chime or gong sounds on the hour in the eight-day clocks and on the hour and half hour in the 30-hour clocks. 

1765 The centre Second hand became common. Here is a lovely '8 Day' mahogany long-case clock dated around 1835 with a decorated arch dial. Often the painted dials depicted mythological scenes, or the four seasons.

Around the middle of the 1800s, the spring-powered movement developed, paving the way for a variety of smaller clock cases. Many different materials were used in clocks. Wood was popular, including mahogany, oak, pine, walnut, and cherry.  

1858 The British Horological Institute was founded - an association of Clock and Watch Makers for the purpose of advancing their art, and "The Horological Journal," the oldest periodical dealing with the craft, was started.

1880 Greenwich Mean Time became the standard time for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Oh my word! Is that the time? Two thousand years has gone by and I hardly noticed. Must get on with some writing! 

And just in case you're interested in the English Civil War, orchids, obsession, adventure and romance, here's my book, The Lady's Slipper - out now, and featuring the turning of many sandglasses, the occasional church chime and the loud tick of a pendulum clock.

Amazon have just reduced it on Kindle - whoot! 

'Women's Fiction at its best' History and Women 'Brilliant saga' Romance Reviews today
'Rich and haunting' Reading the Past
'Riveting narrative' For the Love of Books
'Highly Recommended' Historical Novels Review
'Top Pick!'RT Book Reviews'
'Great read for lovers of sweeping historical fiction!' Night Owl Reviews

'Utterly captivating' Karen Maitland, author of The Owl Killers 

Thanks for Reading - Deborah x


  1. It's amazing how people could track time by where the sun and stars were in the sky or some of the other early devices. I feel like that is knowledge that we have lost when we have all our digital clocks around us.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Very interesting Deborah and I have a question for you. I read (somewhere - I can never remember) that sandglasses or hourglasses were not known until the later Middle Ages. So can you give me the primary source provenance for them occurring earlier than say 1300. I had been happily using them in my earlier works and then read about their non existence in my period (1066-1250) and quietly removed them from my list of artefacts. So an actual primary source would be invaluable!
    The Abbey of Bury st Edmunds had a water clock in the 12thC - they used the water from it to put out a fire!

  3. Hi Elizabeth, yes, the exact time earlier than the Middle Ages from any primary evidence is not known, and I'm afraid that like you I have had to rely on "likelihood" rather than hard evidence. The Horological Society seem to think it was probably as early as 330, that being the time the technology (ie sand and manufactured glass!) became available and that is was originally a nautical instrument, but other evidence suggests it was around 1100, but again this is conjecture on behalf of horological enthusiasts rather than hard primary evidence.For this post I thought that to give benefit of the doubt I would use the earlier date.

    I have the same difficulty as you do, but with clocks - deciding if/when longcase clocks were likely to have been afforded in the 17th century by the every day person, and have put them in/taken them out as I've wrestled with the likelihood factor.

    There are paintings that suggest sandglasses were used in Roman times but these have recently been discredited.For those readers that would like a little more information about why we are debating, this is a good online overview

    Sorry not to have been of more help, Elizabeth

    The water clock sounds interesting - I'll go and look that up. And meanwhile, if there is anyone out there who has an actual primary source for the sandglass (or hourglass)before the Middle Ages please let us know.

  4. Sorry about the weird spacing in the earlier comment, don't know why it has done that!

  5. Hi Karen, nice to read your comment and see your pic!


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