How Did People Tell Time Before Clocks?


Clocks have been around for quite a while and they have played quite a vital role in our evolution as humanity. But a question that many people have is that how did people tell time before we have the conventional clocks to tell time. And that is exactly what we will be discussing in detail in this article

When humanity was still a bit young we used to mark time by the rising and setting of the sun. And a month by the waxing and waning of the moon. Soon after that, we came across Sundials, through which we told time using the shadow made by the sun on a wooden marked blocked. The sundial was followed by the invention of the water clock, then came the candle clock and after the candle clock was the time when we came around hourglasses which are the most famous kind of clocks. They were used more like timers back in the day. And this was nearly the same time as this when the first mechanical clock was made by I Hsing in 723 A.D, this was later modified and made better by y Chang Ssu Hsing in 976 A.D. Further down the line, this was later accompanied by the invention of pendulum clock by Christiaan Huygens in 1656.

And after pendulum clocks humanity started using analog clocks which were a simple variation from the pendulum clocks and we use them till date only with a few new updates like the wifi feature super-accurate time, and don’t forget the digital clocks

Now that we have gotten a brief summary of how things rolled back in the day lets look into each and every one of them one by one

1. Sundials

As we explained these are supposedly the very first time-keeping devices that we as humans came across. The oldest sundial that we know of was from this very era and is named “valley of king”

It was used to divide up the day from sunrise to sunset to 12 equal parts. But, as the name tells, this clock was only useful in the day time. It used the shadow of an object exposed to the sun. And, as the sun went through its progressions throughout the day, it ultimately caused the shadow of the object to move and ultimately tell time

A picture of a sundial to better answer When Was The First Clock Invented?
How Did People Tell Time Before Clocks?A Sundial

The sundial is considered the very first device that was used by the ancient people to figure out the time. The world’s oldest sundial is the “valley of king” which dates back to 1500 B.c. but some say that the history of sundials started way before that. There were different types of sundials that were used. Some made of stones and others made of wood. Buth these time keeping devices still had quite a few loopholes and the biggest one of them was that it couldn’t measure time in the night time. This loophole was soon covered by the making of the water clock in in the third century

2. Water Clocks

Some amount of water was put in a vessel. That was allowed to escape through a hole in the bottom. The time determined varied according to the size of the vessel and the hole made at the bottom

A picture of an ancient water clock to better answer How Did People Tell Time Before Clocks?

It was all before we had the liberty of wearing fancy clocks on our wrist. Or even the scientific knowledge to make the atomic clock. Which helps function the internet as well as the GPS system properly. So, how was it possible for anyone to maintain some kind of a schedule. And then sundials were made which made it possible to navigate through time but they only worked in the day time. So, Egyptians thought of making a time measurement device using the most common liquid around, water. They were educated enough to know that as the level of water in a container drops, the outflow of the stream coming out of the hole made will also drop

A picture of different flows of water to better answer How Did People Tell Time Before Clocks?

An advancement in this way of water clock was seen in the Jarasandh period of Korean history. Engineers of this time took advantage of the buoyancy force,( the upthrust force that the water applies on any object when it is immersed into the water) to develop an alarming system. They already knew through the teachings of Archemdis. That the buoyant/upthrust acting on the body could cause the body to float depending on the density of the object.

So, they build another mechanism, where the runoff water fills the secondary vessel object. An object with a lower density is placed in the second vessel. Which will float and come up as the water is filled in the second container.

A picture of a water clock to better answer How Did People Tell Time Before Clocks?

This same mechanism was then later used on a smaller scale to make alarm clocks. Even Plato the famous philosopher is known to have made his own personal alarm clock

3. Candle Clocks

The complete origin of the candle clock is somewhat hazy but many historians say that Candle clocks first came to be in China in near 500 A.D. Here is how it worked: As the candle burnt down through the melting of the wax whilst the passing of the day, the time would be determined by seeing how much the candle has already burnt and which mark it has crossed. To further elaborate, here is a picture

A picture of the candle clock
Candle Clocks

Then came the mechanical clocks in the 14th century which soon became the standard. It started off by having a weight hanging from a pulley that turned the geared the single hand. Which indicated the hours as well as the portions of the hour. Then came the spring-wound clocks in the fifteenth century. This was around 1400 A.D. when coiled springs began to be used in clocks. And as most of the locksmiths were also clockmaker, hence they were simultaneously introduced in clocks too.

If you want to know more about candle clocks “Click Here

A picture of the candle clock
Candle Clocks

4. HourGlass

A decorative picture of Hourglass clock
Hourglass clock

It is a device that consists of two glass bulbs which are vertically connected with a narrow neck. The neck allows some amount of sand to pass through the upper glass to the lower glass. Usually, the upper and lower glasses are exactly alike, so the sandglass would measure the exact same time regardless of its orientation, up or down.

The very first sandglass clock is said to have been made by a french monk named Liutprand during the eighth century A.D. The sandglass clock is also known as the hourglass as it could only tell when an hour was up. They were used to set off blocks of time. And hence, they were all designed to measure one hour. Nowadays if you wish to buy an hourglass/sandglass for decor, there are some that cost even thousands of dollars due to their unique history.

5. Mechanical/ Pendulum Clocks

Pendulum clocks are a curious type of clock and if you are wondering what they are made out of, we’ve got you covered.

Essentially, the movement of the pendulum clock depends on five main parts, a power source, a gear train, an escapement, a pendulum, and an indicator.

A pendulum is the main timekeeping element of a pendulum clock. Clock pendulums are usually made out of weights suspended on a wood rod or a metal rod. In better clocks, the weights are usually heavier as it increases the accuracy of a pendulum. The pendulum is kept in its momentum with the help of an escapement. Each time the pendulum swings through its center position, it releases one tooth of the escape wheel. The force of the clock’s mainspring or a driving weight hanging from a pulley, transmitted through the clock’s gear train, causes the wheel to turn, and a tooth presses against one of the pallets, giving the pendulum a short push. The clock’s wheels, geared to the escape wheel, move forward a fixed amount with each pendulum swing, advancing the clock’s hands at a steady rate.

Usually, the pendulum can also be adjusted, mostly with an adjustment nut. Moving it up causes the pendulum to move faster and so the time is increased while moving it down causes the pendulum to go slower and so the time is decreased.

6. Atomic Clock

You probably have heard of atomic clocks as not are they the most accurate way of measuring time but it is also used scientifically in various ways. The authenticity of it being the most accurate clock can be inferred by the fact that it looses 1 second after every 138 million years. That’s a big figure. An example of a famous place it is used at is CERN, NASA, and many others.

Atomic clocks are clocks that measure the oscillations (movement) of atoms. This is pretty complicated stuff but the basic concept is that all atoms of a given element vibrate or tick the same number of times per second. To elaborate, there are 9,192,631,770 ticks in one second. And though this number seems a bit weird it is quite important. Since today the international standard for what a second is based on that many vibrations/ticks of a cesium atom

But why are these atomic clocks so important. And why do we even need clocks this accurate?

Fun fact:

The clock that the U.S. uses to calibrate its time is accurate to a second in a 100 million years. So if you had put one of these clocks in the medieval ages they will still tell the same time in this day and age.

Data transmission on the internet, as well as the GPS navigational system and cell phone towers and even the high grid, depends on this clock. In conclusion, our high-speed interconnected world works because we can use different pieces of technology using accurate time. So, you take that out of the way, and say good buy to the internet? And isn’t that just sad?Moreover, whenever we build a new clock, engineers find some good way to use it. So, in the future, if we develop even more accurate clocks, who knows where they will lead us

Hopefully, this article was helpful in answering some of your clock-related questions. If you have any clock-related questions, feel free to use the comment section below. And if you want to know why clocks don’t appear in dreams, we have a great article on just that so do give it a click if you are interested “Why don’t clocks appear in dreams? Clocks and dreams!Opens in a new tab.“. Here is also a link about the history of clocks if you want to give that a look “History of timekeeping devicesOpens in a new tab.

AK Iqbal

A University of London’ student with a passion for writing. Clocks have always intrigued me and the importance that they have in our lives is way beyond phenomenal. So, on this site, I write everything about clocks, everything from answering any clock-related queries that you might have along with recommending some of my favorite clocks accordingly. Moreover, I will also be conducting some researches on clock related topics and sharing the things that I learn. So stay tuned to ohmyclock for all the fun clocks related content

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