All the Time in the World

2000 years and 13 inventions in time-keeping

For thousands of years man has found countless ways to keep time, from sand to sun. Here’s a look at 13 inventions used to track passing time, a few we might still recognize today.

1. Hourglass Clock

Often referred to as the ‘sand clock’ the hourglass is not just a pretty ancient ornament tucked away on a modern shelf. Invented in the 8th century by a French monk called Liutprand, the hourglass was actually used as a timekeeping device. Voyager Ferdinand Magellan packed 18 hourglasses and a diligent time keeper to flip them upon the last grain–this is how he logged his voyage time.

Portable Hourglass, French or Italian, late 17th century (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

2. Sundial Clock

Perhaps one of the most stunning devices to tell time is the Pantheon in Rome, built under Emperor Hadrian by an unknown architect. This 2000-year-old once-pagan temple, once-Christian church was constructed with an internal clock that cast a shadow along the famed rooftop, indicating the hours of the day. Leave your watches at home when visiting, because it still functions today.

Image caption: Interior of the Pantheon, Rome (From the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

3. Candle Clock

Not every day was a sunny day for timekeepers of the past, so what did these busy-bodies do when they needed to know how much time has passed throughout the day without the guiding force of the sun? They lit candles. Perfect for cloudy days and nighttime, the candle clock measured time based on wax markings dripped to the bottom of the candle holder. What we now see as a charming buildup of colorful wax at the base of our brass candleholders, was actually an ancient “clock”.

Silver Bough Candelabra Clock (From the collection of Regional Ethnographic Museum-Plovdiv)

4. Incense Clock

Used mostly in Chinese culture, the incense clock made it big by keeping time in homes and temples. The timekeeping device is designed in such a way that as the incense burns, censors mark the days, hours and minutes of time passed. Some were even equipped with mini gongs to make time audible.

Incense Fire Clock, John D. Reed, 1979 (From the collection of National Watch & Museum Collection)

5. Polyhedral Dial

Intellectuals of the past weren’t interested in time alone, but place as well. This polyhedron dial acts somewhat as a compass, giving users a way of telling place based on time. The faces of this mechanism along with those little spikes on the sides, allowed for voyagers to place exactly where and when they were.

Polyhedral dial, by Stefano Bonsignori, 1597 (From the collection of Museo Galileo - Istituto e Museo di Storia di Scienza)

6. Astronomical Clock

Get ready for a clock so advanced, it even calculated the amount of time it took the Earth to revolve around the sun. Clocks like this tell us time in respect to planetary movements. What good is that? They gave us guidance vital phases which govern agricultural seasons. By aligning time with movement (as depicted by the representation of planets in the center of the clock) we got cool things like seasonal food, wine, and even February 29 babies.

Astronomical Clock and Orrey (From the collection of Natural History Museum of Vienna)

7. Grandfather Clock

The pendulum clock was first invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1656 to ensure precision with the precise back and forth interval swinging. But the grandfather clock that adorns many a grandmother’s living room is thanks to William Clement in 1680, after the pendulum swing was shortened and made more precise. In short, if a little something called the anchor escapement wasn’t invented to decrease the space the pendulum needed to swing, our grandfather clocks would be 20 times wider than the current size they are today.

Clock used in observations of the transit of Venus, John Shelton, 1768/1769 (From the collection of Science Museum)

8. Pocket Watch

The 16th century brought us the invention of the spring mechanism, which led to the oh-so trendy pocket watch, much easier than looking for the town sundial. These watches soon became very popular and it was only a matter of time before the chain accessory was invented.

Pocket watch depicting an insurgent armed with a scythe, Patek & Co, ca. 1845 (From the collection of The Polish Museum in Rapperswil)

9. Trench Watch, Designed for Combat

Pocket watches changed in design in the late 19th century, leading to the wristwatch we know and love today. But the concept of the wristwatch only became popular with WWI trench watches, which were like pocket watches but allowed for a strap, for easier timekeeping during battle.

Wristwatch, Zenith Watch Company, 1918 (From the collection of National Watch & Clock Museum)

10. Wristwatch

The wristwatch as we know it emerged on the scene with full force in 1916, when Thresher and Glenny, a company who produced military uniforms, started advertising the “proper wristwatch” for gentlemen, a combination of a trench watch and the wristwatch we still use today. The wristwatch we commonly use did not fully take on until after 1920, as they were commonly worn by veterans of war and were frowned upon if worn by non-veterans.

Sheffield, Sheffield Watch factory Ltd. and Voumard (?), c. 1950 (From the collection of The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb)

11. Wall Clock

With the invention of the spiral-hairspring in the early 15th century, clocks experienced a revolutionary makeover. They become smaller and portable, hence the wall clock. Before the invention of the simple, round, black and white wall clock that adorns every office lunch room, there was the more charmed style of telling time from a wall.

Wall Clock (Pendule à répétition), Clock movement by Charles Voisin, Chantilly Porcelain Manufactory, about 1740 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

And thanks to German clockmaker, Franz Anton Ketterer, the musical cuckoo clock was invented in 1730, bringing joy to households everywhere. Every hour, on the hour.

Wall clock (From the collection of Lithuanian Art Museum)

12. Digital Watch

The first digital watch was introduced on the market in the 1970s, by Hamilton at an astronomical price of approximately $2000 (consider inflation). By the end of the 1970s the price dropped to $10 a piece.

Tissot F1, Tissot 1.8.1977. (From the collection of The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb)

The digital wristwatch has seen many transformations, including the addition of a mini-calculator which didn’t take off in popularity until the 1980s.

Casio with calculator, Casio, 1982 - 1983 (From the collection of The Museum of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb)

13. Camera Phone Watch

With the invention of digital timekeeping, wrists have gone bare, with almost all digital phones making it a basic feature to keep time, as well as other functionality such as being able to take and store photos, send emails, find the love of your life on apps, watch cat videos… oh, and of course call your mom.

iPhone, 2007 (From the collection of The Henry Ford)
Written by Louise Vinciguerra
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