Discover the Art of Time With 8 Curious Clocks

From the ancient world to the atomic age, keep time with these ornate and ingenious timepieces

By Google Arts & Culture

With content from the British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, and more

Astronomic clock of Louis XV in Versailles (1749/1753) by Claude-Siméon PassemantPalace of Versailles

Clock Tick

Throughout history, timekeeping has played a crucial role in the success of the human race. Although the degree of precision has increased over time, we’ve always crafted chronological devices with style, flair, and ingenuity.

Clock Chime

Scroll to learn about eight of the coolest clocks from the past to the present. 

Water Clock Decorated with a Baboon Water Clock Decorated with a Baboon (664–30 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1. Baboon Water Clock

This exquisite example of a water clock was crafted sometime between 664 and 30 BCE. The vessel behind the monkey was filled with water, which then drained out below him at a consistent rate.

As the water flowed out, an observer could check the level of the remaining water to see how much time had passed. This sculpture is thought to be an offering to the Egyptian god Thoth.

Portable Equatorial (1748) by Jacob Emanuel Laminit, German, 1719–1760Original Source: See this work of art on the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum website

2. Portable Compass and Sundial

Sundials are among the oldest known methods for measuring time, with examples appearing as early as 1500 BCE. In fact, they were the primary method for keeping track of local time until the invention of mechanical clocks.

Even after the inception of the clock, sundials remained useful, and some people still use them today. This superb sundial and compass was crafted in 1748 by Jacob Emanuel Laminit.

3. Clock Tower – Château de Chinon

Some of the first mechanical clocks were striking clocks, which rang a bell to mark the hours. Like this bell tower in Chinon, France, some early clocks only told time by chiming. Click to explore using Street View...but if you’re looking for a clock face, you won’t find it.

Replica of Al-Jazari's Elephant ClockOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions Exhibition, The Jordan Museum, Amman by 1001 Inventions

4. Elephant Clock

Ismail al-Jazari was an engineer, artist, and inventor during the Islamic Golden Age. Pictured here is a reproduction of one of his most famous inventions: The Elephant Clock. Try to guess how this fabulous clock works, then watch the video below to see if you got it right!

Animation showing how the Elephant Clock workedOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

Spherical Table Watch (Melanchthon's Watch) (1530 (Renaissance)) by GermanThe Walters Art Museum

5. Melanchthon’s Watch

As with many other forms of art and fields of study, the Renaissance heralded a new era in chronographs. This spherical table watch is one of the earliest known watches, commissioned in 1530 by German reformer and theologian Philip Melanchthon.

The watch serves as a testament to the craftsmanship of artisans at the time, from the miniaturization of the complex movements of mechanical clocks, to the delicate engraving. The holes in the hinged lid even allowed Melanchthon to check the time when closed.

The mechanical galleon (1580/1580)British Museum

6. The Mechanical Galleon

This impressively luxurious ship-shaped table ornament, or nef,  features a mechanical organ and drum, almost a dozen canons, mechanisms for movement, and a working clock built into the ship's bridge.

Onboard, automata parade in a circle around the seated emperor, the canons fire, the music blares, and the ship scurries across the table. Amidst all the theatrics, almost buried, is the clock face, but the ship’s mates also ring chimes to mark the time.

Wall Clock (Pendule) (about 1735 - 1740) by case possibly after a design by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, clock movement by Jean-Jacques FiéfféThe J. Paul Getty Museum

7. Pendule d’alcove

This 18th-century French alcove clock, or pendule d’alcove, is an exemplary specimen of the Rococo designs popular in its era.

Designed by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier, one of the innovators of the ornamental style, this clock features swooping curves and intricate sculptures, all immaculately gilded. 

Can you imagine this elegant timepiece hanging in your entryway?

Caesium atomic clock (1955) by National Physical LaboratoryScience Museum

8. Atomic Clock

As our understanding of the world around us grew, so did our ability to create precise timekeeping methods. Observations of the atomic world allowed scientists to make a clock which uses the vibrations of energized atoms to measure time.

Just like the constant flow of water or the movement of a pendulum, atoms can vibrate at consistent, predictable rates. Cesium-133, an isotope of a soft metal element, is made up of atoms which vibrate at a frequency that lines up exactly with the length of a second!

This clock, made in 1955 by English physicists Louis Essen and J.V.L Parry, is the first working atomic clock. While this prototype stands almost as tall as its creators, we now have atomic clocks as small as microchips!

Astronomical clockMantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

For an in-depth look at another chronographic contraption, check out The Astronomical Clock of Mantua.

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