This is a question that many people have stumbled upon out of random curiosity. That how did the people know what time to set on the first clock. with minutes and second hands, how did they know when exactly to set it? Well, we will answer that question in detail today so without further ado, let’s dive right into the science and history of how it was done and carried out.
The first device used to measure time was the water clock back in the 5th century B.C. 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
To conclude, it was a long process that started off by determining the position of the sun and the moon. And ultimately led to more precision in form of dividing the day into further parts. It all just started from people in the same area having the same type of clock measuring device and the same parameter which followed the same steps. It initially varied by some time, but as the timekeeping devices became more uniform and the same, it formed a unison in the time of the area. This took due place after the invention of the first clock in the 14th century in Europe. So, It was a gradual process that led humanity to make more and more precise clocks out of necessity. We will look into the depth of how it happened in depth in the following paragraphs
A dive into History
Well, nature itself provides us with many clocks, to begin with. 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. But as we grew we built better and more precise ways of telling time. Like a water drip clock, a pendulum clock, and finally Quartz crystal oscillators and atomic clocks. All of these clocks have one thing in common they measure periodic events. For instance, how long it takes for a pendulum to swing back and forth. Or the earth to move around the sun. And today, we are using the same idea to build something even more accurate, Atomic clocks that uses the oscillations of a cesium atom
Anyways, there was no universal time in those times as there was no way of comparison between different time zones. After determining the length of day through where the sun is in the sky. And the months through its waxing and waning. Humanity started off with the water clock and then developed itself for the candle clock. Which also had many different forms.
The Candle Clock
This came to be in China in near 500 A.D. An example of how it worked is that as the candle burnt down 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
Later on, the very first mechanical clock was made by I Hsing in 723 A.D. This was an astronomical clock. After a few centuries, this clock eventually evolved itself to a mechanical time telling clock by Christian Hyuugens in the 14th century. And it 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.
Navigators and travelers
This was not an easy time for navigators and travelers. As they had to go through great difficulty in finding their position in longitude. And annoyingly enough, the world rotates and doesn’t stand still which leads to even further gaps when it comes to timekeeping. The only suitable way of doing this was through published astronomical tables. That were in line with the sun and the other stars using a sextant. But, to actually utilize this, you would have to know the time of the day to the nearest minute at least. But, these were the old time, when most of the clocks being used couldn’t keep the time accurate to the nearest quarter of an hour whilst on voyages.
Moreover, there was no median time that could be used. There was no starting time from which all time was compared and measured. This disruptance and inconclusive keeping of time led to many disasters due to poor navigation. This eventually led the British government to create a board of longitude and set an award of £20,000, to any man who develops the chronometer with which longitude could be calculated to more precision. Or as they said within half a degree even after several days at sea.
Striving to accuracy
This spiked the interest of John Harrison (born March 1693, in Yorkshire, Eng.—died March 24, 1776, London) who was a self-taught mechanic. He constructed an accurate chronometer in 1728. This led to navigators being able to compute their longitude accurately in their voyages. John made and completed the chronometer in the year 1735. And submitted if for the reward. He then went onto building three more chronometers that were even more accurate and precise. To, elaborate, his fourth clock was only a few second off in 1762 in a trip from London to Jamaica
And yes he was awarded for his work. But, not as of that moment, he was completely awarded in 1773 £20,000 which as of today would amount to $2.5 million USD
Setting the starting point ” The zero meridian”
The very next step was defining a median point on which all longitudinal navigation would stand on. Eventually, the point was decided through an international agreement. And as the chronometer was a British invention, the spot chosen was the royal Observatory, Greenwich, just outside of London. Accordingly, the whole time is also based on the zero meridian. Which is known to navigators as the Zulu time
Lastly, this was followed by another invention by a British man Thomas Mudge. Who invented one of the most crucial and innovative devices in time measurement, the lever escapement. This used a mechanism that allows the main spring to slowly run down to every passing second and minute. It was and is still being used in nearly all mechanical watches and even in some alarm clocks and kitchen timers. And that’s about it, if you want to know the history of clocks in even more detail Wikipedia.org has some great content on it so do give it a look if you’re interested,” History of timekeeping devices“
Hopefully, this article was helpful and taught you a thing or two about the history of clocks. And answered your question about how the setting of time happened. If you have any further questions, just use the comment section below and we will be happy to help. If you are interested in knowing why do pendulum clocks stop during earthquakes. We wrote an article on that, so check it out. And stay tuned for more interesting articles about clocks.