History of Timekeeping

Before there was the alarm clock, ancient civilizations relied on a variety of ways to tell time , many of which involved elements of nature. In this article, you are introduced to early timekeepers, such as sundials from ancient Egyptian days to the water clocks of ancient Greece.

Sundials and Shadow Clocks (1500 to 1300 BC)

The ancient Egyptians relied on the sun to keep time by creating sundials (also referred to as shadow clocks). As the Earth rotated, the upright part of the sundial (called the gnomon), would cast a shadow that moved to indicate the time. Obelisks were also used to tell time in 3500 BC. In 700 BC, the Old Testament makes mention of a sundial (“dial of Ahaz”), which is referenced in Isaiah 38:8 and II Kings 20:11. The sundial would be used, made, upgraded, and written about for many years to come.

Water Clocks (~ 400 BC)

The ancient Greeks used water to tell time by inventing water clocks. Water drained from a container and when it reached certain levels, it marked various periods of time. Along with sundials, water clocks are one of the oldest methods of timekeeping in the world. It is not known who was the first civilization to use regulated measurements of water to tell time, but the simplest form have existed throughout Babylon and Egypt. There are some sources that believe water clocks were in use in China as early as 4000 BC.

Candles (890 AD)

In England, people used candles to mark various intervals of time, but they were not the first to invent the candle clock. The English were not the only people to use candle clocks , the method has been recorded in use throughout ancient Asian civilizations and during the Dark Ages.  The majority of candle clocks measured 12 inches tall. A thin candle with markings was used to represent blocks of time. The markings were in the form of simple lines or numbers that decorated both sides of the candle. As the candle burned past each marking, you could gain a sense of how much time had passed.  

The candle clock was also used as a timer. You could stick a nail into the candle to serve as a mark that represented a desired amount of time. As time passed, the wax would melt and the nail would release. A candle plate below would alert people to the passage of time once the nail hit the material that created a sound.

Candle clocks also gave an advantage to those who used sundials and water clocks, which relied on elements of nature. If it were cloudy outside or nighttime, the candle clock would still deliver the time. When it comes to the most famous out of all candle clocks, it is probably the one invented by King Alfred the Great of England in 878. Alfred used six candles in his design, which were made from 72 pennyweights of wax. Each candle measured 12 inches tall and possessed an equal thickness. There were 12 one-inch markings on the candle to represent a block of time that burned for four hours. Wooden cases housed the candles, which had transparent panels. Alfred used his candle clock to make better use of his time in regards to his monarchy duties, prayer and study.