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From Ancient Water Clocks to Digital Watches

Updated on July 29, 2013
BlossomSB profile image

Bronwen and her family have enjoyed collecting many things, including fans, clocks, books and shells.

Painting of the Big Ben Tower in Misty Rain
Painting of the Big Ben Tower in Misty Rain | Source

Big Ben

  • Big Ben is the name we often give the most popular landmark in Britain.
  • The tower has had different names over time; Big Ben is actually the name of the biggest bell in the clock. It has a number of bells.
  • 'Big Ben' is the biggest chiming clock with four faces in the world.
  • Big Ben, the bell, was installed in the clock in 1858, the year that the tower was completed.
  • In 2012, the tower was renamed Elizabeth Tower, in honour of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee.

Clocks in Ancient Times

In the times of prehistory, people were more concerned with finding food and shelter, but as the aeons rolled by, knowing the time became more important. Ways of 'telling the time' developed at different times in different parts of the world.

  • The Water Clock: One of the first clocks in ancient days was a water clock that was discovered in an Egyptian tomb. it was dated back to around 1500 B.C.
  • The Sundial: The sundial was an early invention that uses the shadow of the sun to tell the time. I have a funny story about a sundial. When my husband had a scholarship and we were in England for a year, I was delighted to be able to buy a sundial that would be just right for our garden. After a few years, we got around to building a suitable site for it out of local rocks. Then, looking at where the sun was at the time, we placed the dial in position and cemented it there. However, we had bought it in the Northern Hemisphere and we lived in the Southern, so, sadly, it reads backwards!
  • The Hour Glass: Another early invention was the hour glass. We still often use a mini version of this with our egg-timers, which have been made to tell just the right length of time for boiling and egg in its shell.

The Greeks and Romans: The Greeks and Romans had their horologists and astronomers, too, from early times. In 250 B.C., Archimedes designed a more elaborate clock with gears; it even showed the orbiting of the planets and the moon.


Clocks in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Time-pieces interested people very much in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, many men carried quite heavy watches in a small pocket on their waistcoats. These watches were chained to a button to prevent theft or dropping them. They were often engraved and given as a gift on a special occasion such as a twenty-first birthday, or when the person was emigrating.

Until near the end of the twentieth century, most homes had a good clock displayed on the mantlepiece over the fire-place, and smaller ones around the house. Most needed to be wound regularly, although the first electric clock in Britain was made by the Scottish clockmaker, Alexander Bain in 1841.

Clocks were, and still are, often to be found in churches, as in the one pictured below.

Church Clock
Church Clock | Source

Grandfather Clocks

The invention of the pendulum clock led to the necessity of a long case. These have varied in design over the years and are still popular. The first pendulum clock was invented around 1670.

The Grandfather clock shown here is quite large. It was built around 1832 by James Bowes of Bradford. At one stage in its life, it must have been in a cottage with a low ceiling, as the tallest, central carving was removed and was later replaced by a replica of what what thought to have been there.

The painting of an English priory that can be seen around the edges of the clock face is interesting as it is now much more of a ruin than is seen here.

Grandfather Clock
Grandfather Clock | Source
Close-up of Face, Weights and Pendulum
Close-up of Face, Weights and Pendulum | Source
A Couple of Clock Keys
A Couple of Clock Keys | Source

Clock Keys

Even the design of keys for clocks and watches is interesting. Pictured are two keys for winding clocks. In the days before the digital age, clocks and watches needed to be wound.

  • Some clocks were known as seven-day clocks and only needed to be wound once a week. You will notice that in the Grandfather clock the weights are near the top of the case; it has been wound recently, but near the end of the week the weights will be near the bottom of the case and not visible.
  • Watches and some other clocks needed to be wound every 24 hours. Care needed to be taken, as if they were overwound, the spring could be damaged and the time-piece would have to be mended by a clock maker.


Chinese Clocks

The Chinese have always been good at inventing new things and the clock was one of these.

Early examples were water clocks.

They mastered the intricate design of mechanisms for clocks quite early.

One of the most famous water clocks was the forty foot high clock tower built by Su Sung. It used a water wheel and the mechanism was quite an important innovation as, not only did it tell the time comparatively accurately, it also told the date, the month and the movement of the moon.

Su Sung's clock was completed in 1092. Unfortunately, it was stolen by Tartar invaders in 1126. However, the instructions for the design reached Europe some two hundred years later and its construction is seen to be one of the great mechanical achievements of the Middle Ages.

A Chinese Battery Clock with Time and Calendar in Western Numerals
A Chinese Battery Clock with Time and Calendar in Western Numerals | Source
Chinese Battery Watch with Chinese Numerals
Chinese Battery Watch with Chinese Numerals | Source

The Digital Age

Now, in the digital age, we have the time readily available to us, but there never seems to be enough of it and it seems to rule us, rather than being a thing of interest, mechanical design and beauty.

We have digital watches, clocks and we can easily see the time on our computers, mobile phones, ipads and tablets; we have alarm clocks to wake us up in the morning, but time itself seems to vanish so rapidly.

It reminds me of a song we sang at school a long time ago:

"Time, you old gypsy, will you not stay,

Put up your caravan, just for one day..."

Our Lives and Time

How does time and the necessity of keeping to a timetable influence your life?

Does it rule your every minute, or do you 'take time to smell the flowers'?

Time is still not so important in some parts of the world. There are places where time is still told by the sun.

When we lived in PNG, my husband was visiting and examining schools in the area. He arrived by boat and spent the night in the local teacher's house. Later the next morning, he looked at his watch. It was 9.15 a.m. He said,

"Thomas, don't you think it's time you started school?"

Thomas looked towards the sun and the shadows, and replied,

"Yes, Sir. I think it is."

Small Digital Battery Travelling Clock
Small Digital Battery Travelling Clock | Source

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    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      AudreyHowitt: Thank you! So do I!

      rebeccamealey: We often seem to be ruled by time, so it seems to follow that we're interested in time-pieces, too. So glad you enjoyed it. Yes, I know we shouldn't be too attached to earthly possessions, but I love that clock. Happy memories.

      heidithorne: We do! And we even get cross with them when they don't keep exact time, but they're often works of art and to be enjoyed. Thanks for your votes.

      ChitrangadaSharan: It's true! Or at least it is for me, too. There really is a feeling of nostalgia for our favourite clocks. Thank you so much for your vote and tweet!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Excellent hub and such interesting information about water clocks and Sun dials. One gets a feeling of nostalgia about these clocks. I still love the old, big clocks on the wall rather than the digital ones.

      Voted up and Tweeted!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      An object we take for granted, especially with all our digital timekeepers these days! Voted up and interesting!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      What a great topic! And it is truly an interesting read. I love the photos of the old Grandfather clock!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      Very cool! I love old clocks!

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      LadyFiddler: Yes, that sundial tricked us! Thank you so much for reading. I'll have to look for that 'magnificent six'!

    • LadyFiddler profile image

      Joanna Chandler 3 years ago from On planet Earth

      waw interesting lol @ the clock you bought that went backwards :)

      Thanks for sharing, i did a hub with you in "the magnificent six"

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      teaches12345: Three! Wow! Do they all chime at the same time, or one after the other? Mine is so old that it only has a bell and no chime, but it's really loud. I don't notice it at night, but I've just had a friend staying and had to stop the clock as it kept her awake. Yes, I love the old ones, the digital are accurate, but cold.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      Blossom, we have three grandfather clocks that we enjoy in our home. They are so interesting to watch and hear as they chime hourly. I love how times have changed, but some things will always remain endearing. Enjoy the minutes, as you say.

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Wow! I think it might be cheaper to buy new batteries rather than a new watch! But I know what you mean about liking a variety of watches.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

      BlossomSB, many of the watches in my collection just need a new battery. They are all still gorgeous and treasured. I just need to take the time to put a new battery in them. I'm weird! When a watch stops working, instead of fixing it, I just get a new one. I absolutely love watches. Like shoes, I need a watch for every outfit. Try to keep me from buying a new watch. You are likely to get a lot of resistance from me. LOL!

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Eiddwen: Again, it's so lovely to hear from you Eddy and thank you for your comments.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      What a wonderful hub Blossom and thank you so much for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • BlossomSB profile image
      Author

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      MarleneB: Thank you. I didn't go into how water clocks are made as I didn't want the hub to go forever, but when you think about it, it was a clever invention. Watches are interesting and so varied. Do all those in your collection still work? Some of mine, don't!

      kashmir56: Yes, it is. Ours today mostly seem to be useful for people in a hurry, rather than decorative, but many keep amazingly good time.

      kidscrafts: That made me smile. It's usually not difficult to calibrate the ringing with the hands, or you could try a clockmaker/repairer. The problem with one of mine is that the striking is so loud it has to be stopped at night or we'd never sleep!

      ChrisSp: Oh, dear, yes. We were so proud of that sundial - until it was in place, but it made a good talking point and gave lots of people a good laugh, and that's important. We often don't take the time to laugh much these days. As you suggest, our time is a gift and we should use it wisely.

      Vivian-tmt-hnp: I love the way you began your comment with the time - the only thing is: that is the time where you live, but at the same time, the time where I live is quite different! Interesting! Thank you for your comments, I love to share about interesting things.

      Mike Robbers: How lovely! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Gail Meyers: Sorry I didn't tell more about water clocks, but to describe them accurately would really take another hub as it's a long and interesting story. Thank you for your comment and vote.

    • Gail Meyers profile image

      Gail Meyers 4 years ago from United States

      This is a fascinating hub about the history of clocks. I have never even heard of a water clock, which is what grabbed my attention to read your hub. Voted up and awesome!

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      An interesting hub about the history of clocks. An excellent read especially the ancient water clocks. Voted and shared!

    • Vivian-tmt-hnp profile image

      Vivian-tmt-hnp 4 years ago from USA.

      10:30pm Tuesday 30 July 2013

      So wonderful is your article.It's very interesting to know clearly about some clocks in ancient days.

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

      Vivian

    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 4 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      This is very fascinating. Enjoyed your funny story on sundial. And, your last part made me think....our lives and time, where did it go or where is it going? Right now, I'd like to take it slowly, enjoy every minute of it and as you said, take time to smell the flowers. Time, it is here. Right now. Right here.

      Thank you. I had a good read. Voting up and sharing.

      Love from the sky~

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Clocks have evolved quite a lot and even more in the last century with the digital clocks. Soon the kids will be unable to read a "traditional" clock with hands and numbers ;-)

      I have an old clock that comes from my family but I can't have it work otherwise it rings the wrong hours all the time.

      Thanks for sharing this nice hub, Blossom!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      It was nice to read how the clock evolved overtime to what we have now .

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 4 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I don't think I have ever heard of water clocks until now. Fascinating information about clocks. I have an extreme interest in watches. I hesitate to count the number of watches I have in my jewelry box. Oh, by the way, I really enjoyed your sundial story.