A recently viewed meme (here at Times Ticking) asked the question, “How did the first clockmakers know what time it was without a clock?”. Well, before mechanical movements were in town squares, before countless watchmakers and manufacturers dotted the globe, before laboratories around the world began measuring the movement of atoms—there was the sun and shadows cast on the ground. Indeed, following patterns in the cosmos and relating them to our daily lives lead our ancient ancestors to mapping the cycle of each day, month, and year. As well, there were loads of rudimentary mechanical methods in timekeeping that eventually lead to our more sophisticated modern measurements. This compels an understandably nuanced answer to the title’s question. The invention of the original clock(s) is hard to nail down. Although the modern clock began with verge escapement movements in the 15th century—and was later improved by the 17th century—other timekeeping devices date back much further.
With origins attributed to ancient Mesopotamia, the first clock-like machine was in development around 2,000BC. Aside from the old Sumerians giving us a blossoming sexagesimal (base 60) system around this time—which is still in use today—Mesopotamian cultures began using water flow to tell time. In those days, what are currently referred to as “water clocks” were commonly used in ancient Babylon and Egypt by the 16th century BC. A note: these dates should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the remnants of these civilizations are still being excavated and examined.
On that note, the water clock is a technology that leaked its way into China, Greece, and India. In these ancient days, the Greeks referred to their water clocks as clepsydra. These liquid-based devices used in-flow and out-flow basins to measure elapsed time via altered water levels. Essentially, this tech was pouring water to gauge units of time. In Egypt, the water clock also had another companion—the obelisk. This measuring tool functioned similarly to ancient timesticks (in India and Tibet) and sundials. The Egyptians used their obelisks to bifurcate their days into two twelve-hour segments. If that doesn’t sound familiar, just think “not military time” in today’s terms. As Egyptian civilization developed, this technology evolved with the sundial—a tool used to measure the workday of slaves. This piece of tech, featuring a gnomon casting its shadow, had to be recalibrated with each new season. Aside from this inconvenience, the sundial was an effective time-teller. The sundial was eventually adopted by the Greeks, as well, and more popular illustrations of the sundial today tend to be Grecian due to its common usage.
Since shadows were hard to measure on cloudy days, and water wasn’t always an abundantly available resource, other forms of ancient clock tech emerged from older civilizations. Two examples that stand out, in particular, are the candlestick clock and the hourglass. Being the more common of the two, the hourglass is still used as a symbol for the passage of time—to this day. Being much akin to its water clock predecessor, the hourglass uses volumes of matter, dispersed between two chambers, to show the relative passage of time. Although this form of clock tech wasn’t commonly seen until the 14th century, it still has some practical use in modern civilization.
In some contrast, the candlestick clock utilized a different method from the hourglass and water clocks. If the name is any indication, this time-telling device required a candle to measure the passage of time. With these timekeepers, a candle would be lit beside an evenly spaced series of markings. As the candle burned down, the height of the candle—relative to the markings—would show the passage of time. Considering other timekeeping methods required outdoor use, this clever piece of ancient clock tech was more pragmatic during inclement weather. Furthermore, today we use stratification in rocks—and the decay rate of atoms—to measure relative time and the age of ancient things. So, having an easy-to-follow visual decay isn’t entirely out of practice in our modern age.
Since it’s difficult to see what individuals initiated clock invention in ancient days, it’s hard to pinpoint a true inventor of clocks. However, as time moved through the “AD” instead of “BC” portion of human history, more names and innovations emerged. Gears, weights, and water escapement movements were constructed by various cultures from ~3rd century AD to the 11th century AD. By the 14th century, European clockmakers brought the Verge Escapement movement to the table. This key innovation helped clock-making flourish—utilizing a balance wheel to help keep time moving forward. The Verge Escapement movement was eventually scaled down to build the first pocket watches—as a result. Eventually, this design was improved upon further by Robert Hooke in the mid-16th century. If there’s any candidate for the “first clock” invention title, it would be Mr. Hooke. In 1656 he introduced the anchor escapement or “pendulum” clock to the world. This oscillating movement set a new precedent in timekeeping that would be evolved upon and utilized until the 1930s. As it went, the first half of the 20th century witnessed the advent of quartz oscillation and atomic timekeeping. Although these technologies were relegated to labs in the beginning, they became the standard that we utilize today. And even though they may come across as space-agey—or so new that they’re detached from their much older predecessors—these modern timekeepers run on the same principles as their ancient brothers and sisters. So, whether your quartz movement is oscillating, or you’re checking the time on an atomic wristwatch, you’re part of a time honored tradition. And even though the very first clockmaker remains unnamed, their legacy lives on in our lives today.
Times Ticking has been in operation for more than 30 years, since 1982. We have performed clock repair for customers both locally and nationally. If it Ticks! We KNOW it! Our team of clock repair technicians have a combined experience in clockmaking of over 120 years.