From Shadows to Gears: The Engineering of Clocks Throughout History

By Andy Darnley

Humans have always been fascinated by time. From inventors in ancient Greece to those in medieval Europe, many have toyed with new ways of tracking the seconds, minutes, hours, days and telling time. Important time-telling inventions like the sundial and hour-glasses have contributed to the sophisticated and high tech clocks and watches we enjoy today.

The 1700s saw a marked increase in clock-related technology. During the Industrial Revolution, clocks began to resemble their modern counterparts and the way we perceived time was changed forever.

Modern mechanical clocks all work similarly–with gears, mainsprings, pendulums, and weights. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Pre-2000 BC- The sundial is one of the earliest man-made ways to tell time. They were used as far back as ancient Iran and ancient Egypt and were in everyday use until the 19th century.

2000 BC- The Sumerians invent the sexagesimal system of time measurement still in use today.

1500 BC- The Egyptians invented the water clock. Although it is believed that water clocks were used all the way back in Babylon, the first known example is from the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep I. There are two kinds of water clocks: inflow and outflow. Inflow clocks work by filling up a marked container; conversely, outflow clocks work by water flowing out of the original container and showing marks measuring the progression of time.

520- Candle clocks were first mentioned in a Chinese poem written in 520 AD. Six candles, each 12 inches high and of the same thickness divided into 12 sections each. Each candle took four hours to burn, and each marking represents 20 minutes of burning time. The candle clock is more of a timer than a clock in modern understanding.

1206- Ismail al-Jazari, a Turkish inventor, designed a more sophisticated candle clock that actually displayed time instead of merely measuring it. The melting of the candles acted as a counterweight that caused the clock hands to move.

1309- The first mechanical clock is recorded. It was a clock in an Italian church. The oldest working clock in the world is located at Salisbury Cathedral. It is made of hand-wrought. Like most clocks of its age, it doesn’t have a face. Instead, it chimes the hours. The clock was taken down in the 19th century but restored in the 20th century using careful repair techniques and historical engineering methods.

1450- The coiled spring was invented, and made portable clocks possible. During the 16th century, some very wealthy people had clocks at home, but they were costly and scarce.

1510- The invention of the watchPeter Henlein was a German locksmith. His watches were ornamental and meant to be worn as pendants or attached to clothing.

1657- One issue with early clocks is that they were not very reliable. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens’s invention of the pendulum in 1657 increased their reliability. Clocks were still set, however, using sundials.

Late 1600s- Longcase clocks (which are now called grandfather clocks) enter the market. By 1876 a song called “My Grandfather’s Clock” was popular.

1675- The spiral watch spring is invented. This invention allowed for smaller pocket watches to evolve from the larger, pendant-style watches. These early pocket watches are highly collectible.

1775- The first cuckoo clock was crafted in what is now modern-day Germany. Collectors adore these highly decorated clocks, and it is possible to get them made and repaired using the original schematics.

1821- The stopwatch was invented in France by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec. Earlier, cruder attempts were recorded as early as 1690, but Rieussec’s invention was the real introduction of how modern people think of a stopwatch, although he called his design a chronograph.

1840- Scotsman Alexander Bain patented the first electric clock on October 10, 1840. It worked using an electromagnetic pull push. His second clock featured a pendulum that was moved through electromagnetic impulses.

1840- Prior to 1840, each town or village in Great Britain operated in its own time zone (this was also the case across Europe and in America). The coming of the railroads meant the need for all towns within a zone to operate within the same time. The Great Western Railway announced railway time, which eventually morphed into Standardized time in Britain. In the beginning, stations would have two clocks. One showed railway time, and one showed the traditional local time. The two clock system had been mostly phased out by the late 1850s.

1883- The U.S. introduces four-time zones-Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. The railroads were the impetus for the adoption of the time zones, as they were in Britain. The United States government wouldn’t officially adopt the time zones until 1918.

1929- The Quartz crystal clock uses an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time; which creates a precise frequency signal. This means they are far more accurate than mechanical clocks. Advances in technology and engineering led to the development of the clock.

1955- Atomic clocks are the most accurate clocks and timekeepers known. They use technology and engineering born out of atomic research. Their high rate of accuracy was used in the experiment’s testing Einstein elevator theories.