Essay: History of Timepieces

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History Of Timepieces

A Survey of Timepieces of the Western World from 1350 to 1750

The History of timekeeping and timepieces in the Western World must first begin by taking a look into the ancient history of the Middle East. Here, mathematicians and astronomers developed methods of recording numbers, keeping time, and observing the movement of the heavens. Their developments and findings helped shape the practices of timekeeping for centuries, from the use of water clocks to mechanical clocks, until modern science beginning with the Italian Renaissance took timekeeping to a whole new level. This paper will analyze how modern time began to be able to be told from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth by starting with a brief consideration of ancient practices and ending with the development of portable watches for people such as Blaise Paschal.

The Ancient Babylonians are credited with beginning one of the world's oldest numbering systems approximately 5,000 years ago. While Western Civilization has gone on to use a base ten (decimal) system, the Babylonians used a base sixty (sexigesimal) system -- which "divided the day into twenty-four hours, each hour into sixty minutes, and each minute to sixty seconds" (Troutman). The Babylonian number system had been influenced by the Sumerians and the Akkadians, but like Roman numericals, Babylonian numericals were positional: Babylonians used only two symbols in different groupings or arrangements to convey quantity (O'Connor "Babylonian Numerals"). Babylonian mathematicians like Pythagoras are now famous for spreading their formulas, and the Middle East became a great source for applying numerical concepts to nature. For this reason, the Babylonian base sixty system survived to be used by both the Egyptians and the Greeks and incorporated into Western civilization's timepieces.

The history of timekeeping may begin with the Ancient Egyptians who had built obelisks around 3500 BC and were using sundials by 1500 BC. At the same time, water clocks were being used by people such as the Egyptian King Amenhotep I, and were employed by Greek mathematicians by 450 BC.

However, Greeks such as Archimedes used "toothed wheels," or gears, when modeling the workings of the universe and the motions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. These "toothed wheels" were passed onto the Islamic nations and from the Islamic nations onto medieval Europe (De Solla Price 10), just as were the elaborate water clocks developed by Greek and Roman horologists, some of which "rang bells and gongs [and] opened doors and windows to show little figures of people" ("The History of Timekeeping").

Mechanical timekeeping devices, however, really came into being during the Medieval Age, when clocks (the word comes from the French cloche, meaning bell) were used to regulate the ringing of church bells for prayer. According to de Solla Price, the origin of medieval Europe's clocks may have come from a Chinese model brought to Europe from one of the returning Crusades prior to the 1200s. While these clocks were primarily astronomical models, ornately designed to convey the wonder of God's creation, they gradually became timekeeping devices, thanks in large part to the rise of the merchant class of the Italian Renaissance in the early 1300s.

The merchants of the Italian Renaissance had a keen interest in keeping an eye on work, not just prayer, hours: "By the year 1335, a public clock had appeared in the city of Milan, and clocks gradually began to appear in other places. These first clocks were mechanical ones that used weights to provide their power. They had no faces and no hands. They simply struck a bell every hour" (Fabian).

Italian Renaissance physicists, like Galileo, also had a keen eye for observation and improvement, and in 1581 Galileo discovered the principle of the pendulum, which when actually applied to the mechanical clock would add a greater consistency to the movement of its hands.

Isaac Newton would build upon Galileo's principle of oscillation, and it in turn would finally be applied to the mechanical clock device in 1656 by Christian Huygens (Bellis). The pendulum proved to be most "fascinating because it worked on the principles of the newly triumphant Newtonian astronomy [and meant] a new approach to clocks and a basic change in shape to accommodate its length" (De Solla Price 12).

The evolution of the clock, however, was somewhat slow. For example, prior to Jost… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Essay:

APA Format

History of Timepieces.  (2011, March 16).  Retrieved May 26, 2019, from

MLA Format

"History of Timepieces."  16 March 2011.  Web.  26 May 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"History of Timepieces."  March 16, 2011.  Accessed May 26, 2019.