The Early Clocks and How They Looked

July 12, 2018
Time tethers us to our days and nights, as we make sense of the hours, minutes and seconds, latching on to the chronographic realm. How do you keep track of time? Is that a fancy Rolex? I wonder how the ancient Sumerians would react to the Rolex, or other newfangled time-keeping devices! Talking about ancient, here's a list of some of the first 'clocks' ever; take your time, and take a look at these early timekeeping devices from your comfortable 21st century time-saving gadget, and lap up the irony, as well.

Sundial: Sundials sound like  fancy, solar time-machines. At least I like to think of them that way. They basically consist of a dial, and a gnomon, which casts a shadow, aligning with the different hour lines, according to the position of the sun. It sounds like a simple device bereft of any complications, but to keep track of the correct time, the style (time telling edge) of the gnomon must be parallel to the axis of the earth's rotation! Also, the oldest known sundial dates back to 1500 BC!

Waterclock: The flow of time is the perfect metaphor for waterclocks, as they use water to measure time. It can be traced back to Babylon and Egypt, with the somewhat bowl-shaped design, but then, these ancient devices were also said to be used in India and China, as well. There are two types of waterclocks : the outflow and the inflow. In the outflow, the water is drained from a container, which has markings to indicate the passing time, while in the inflow, it is the other way round. Instead of being drained, they were collected in a container, which possessed the markings to convey the passage of time.

Hourglass: We are rather familiar with the hourglass, as the image of two glass bulbs connected by a narrow neck, and sand trickling through that opening pops up in our minds. Although our knowledge as to its origin is somewhat limited. The existence of the hourglass is marred with uncertainty. A sarcophagus discovered in Rome in the 18th century contained a painting of Peleus and Thetis, where the hourglass was first spotted (350 CE), but then the subsequent years were conspicuous by its absence. It reappeared again in the middle ages (8th century CE). Apart from those evidences, a 14th century fresco, 'Allegory of Good Government', also boasted of the hourglass.

Incense Clock: You heard that right, time had a fragrance back then. These clocks used incense sticks which were adjusted accordingly to control the burning rate, so as to precisely calculate time. Most of them had weights, or simply threads attached to them, which would drop on the platter placed underneath. Sometimes, the change of time would be indicated by a change of fragrance! Though said to be originated in China, the inscription of Devanagari script on some of the earliest incense clocks suggests an Indian connection as well.

Candle Clock: A Chinese poem by You Jiangu (AD 520) mentions candle clocks. That was probably the first evidence as to this unique chronograph. The candles came in a set of six, were 12 inches long, and were divided into 12 sections as well, and had the same thickness, and each of them took about four hours to burn. But the most accurate and sophisticated candle clocks can be traced to Al-Jazari, the brilliant engineer.

The quest to trap time inside ancient dials, or keep them hanging by gnomons, or tape them to the ends of incense sticks were all a part of a bigger process to comprehend this world. The concept of time, and how it continues to flow, and how we are intertwined with this cosmic metabolism continues to baffle all. These devices were succeeded by astronomical clocks, atomic clocks, and other modern gadgets we are accustomed to now, but the amazing evolution shows us the profound endeavours of the humankind to grasp time itself.

Post Written by - Lopamudra

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