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History

A BRIEF REVIEW OF TIME KEEPING:

From sundials to GPS [now in almost every new phone and automobile], the measure of time has always been important in regulating daily activities.  Modern school children look at their phone or tablet for the time, and many have trouble getting used to a clock with 2 hands instead of 4 numerals separated by 2 dots.

Advancements in astronomy and navigation that began centuries ago could never have occurred without more precise time measurement.

The earliest evidence of humans constructing a fixed device for following the sun and stars lies at Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England, and dating to 3100 BC..  Every 4th grade student has seen these standing stones in his science book.

Some historians write that the Chinese perfected the clepsydra as early as 4000 BC.  This water clock dispenses water from a chamber or bowl a drip at a time, being re-filled when empty.  Other civilizations improved on this, adding a dial with a hand or a float with vertical scale to indicate the amount of water remaining.  It has been shown that simple bowl clepsydras existed in Babylon and Egypt as early as the 16th Century BC.  In Europe, water clocks appear around 1000 AD and were in use through 1350 AD.  Many Mediterranean civilizations handled daily time observations with sun dials and sand glasses.   Larger versions of our 3-minute egg timer were standard fare in any situation where time was to be measured.  Simple wax  “Candle clocks” were also used.

The first clocks used for public time keeping were large water clocks installed in church towers or other prominent buildings.  Mechanical clocks date to the early 1300s, the first known turret clock being installed at Erfurt, Germany in Benedict Abbey, and by 1400 virtually every major city in Europe had a “tower” or turret clock with a large dial visible from a good distance, and many struck the hours on large bells that could be heard for a mile or more.

Time measurement took a great leap in accuracy after 1602, when Galileo discovered that a pendulum of a given length swung at a constant rate.  Many clock makers applied this principal during the 1600s.

Until the industrial revolution, virtually all clocks were hand made, so it was the 2nd quarter of the 19th century before interchangeable parts and standardized case designs began to come into play.  For the 125 years spanning 1695 through 1820, the English had a reputation as the masters of the clock trade, however the French out-shone them in quality, precision and beauty.  After 1850, the American clock making industry in Connecticut, grew to dominate much of the market with their low prices and reliable models.  The factory clocks produced by such firms as Seth Thomas Clock Co, Ansonia Clock Co, Waterbury Clock Co, Welch, Spring & Co., New Haven Clock Co, Wm L Gilbert Clock Co, and E. Ingraham & Co, to name a few, are avidly collected by folks intrigued by their mechanical reliability and interesting case designs.

This brief discussion has omitted watches and marine timekeeping and the tremendous contributions made by John Harrison, and also we have not mentioned early battery nor electric clocks, many of which are very precise.  Hundreds of books have been written on clocks and on horology and this little teaser is only meant to give you a taste so that you might do further research on your own.  If you are truly interested in accuracy, you might review articles on clocks regulated by the quartz crystal [most common today], as well as the atomic [cesium] clock.