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How did people tell time before the invention of mechanical clocks?
The easy answer is 'sundials' - but I think they were used mainly by institutions and the wealthy. I took a trip back 2000 years in my mind to come up with my answer and then I wrote a brand new hub about it. I would like to see if anybody comes up with the same idea I had.
Well, a sundial uses the shadow cast by the sun. Trees also cast shadows and perhaps the ancients reckoned time by that method; it would make it unecessary to stare right at the sun.
They also supposedly tied knots in a rope and burned the rope, clicking off the hours as each knot burned away.
In a cave where water dripped continuously and at the same rate, it would take x amount of minutes to fill a certain sized bowl. If the timekeeper (probably an important person back then) had to empty the bowl 12 times during the day it would equal one hourly time period per emptying.
A really weird possibility for determing time might involve a runner loping a certain distance. Men like to run and in the old (really old) days some could run all day long. They could cover a certain distance between sunup and sundown. A really smart guy could figure that if the runner ran just 1/12th of the distance, it would take him 1/12th of the time span between sunup and sundown. The designated runner, then, would run around the compound for the specified distance and each time he passed a certain point another hour would have expired. They could do that back then; they wasted very little time at their computers.
In the middle ages cheap candles were available to those with a bit of cash to flash. These candles were divided into six or twelve, depending on length, each segment approximated an hour's passing. Sun dials were available from the 11th Century here, paid for by the nobility. A famous one overhangs the door to St Gregory's Minster (a small church built in the 10th Century and re-dedicated in the 11th with inscribed sun dial added by the landowner) in Kirkdale near Helmsley, North Yorks.
Rush lights were another way of measuring time, but didn't last as long as candles.
On dark winter mornings the cock crow brought men from their beds to work in the fields or to watch the peasants in case they tried to run away (they were their lord's property). In the towns or cities where men were free there were town criers who called out time for curfew, and in the morning called out that curfew was over.
Mechanical clocks appeared in the fourteenth century, but only the rich had access to their own. Anyone else looked at the church clock (town or city only),
By the eighteenth century here there was a clock tax, so again only the rich had pocket watches or clocks. Others looked up at the church clock or through windows at inn clocks, where there were 'public clocks' with no glass over the dial to reflect the light outside. Though mechanical clocks and watches were available in the early (and in places up to mid-) 20th Century there were 'knockers up' in industrial towns or pit villages, to get men up for work (until the late 19th Century women and children from age 10 and over). Only from between the wars were watches and clocks affordable by the masses here, and of school children only those from well-off backgrounds had watches of their own.
Wow. What a fascinating glimpse into history. Great comment. Never heard of the 'knockers up'. Kind of an early wake up service. I could have used this during my school days.
A well-written answer that could serve as a basis for a hub by itself! I voted it up.
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