History of clocks in 800 words

Why are there 60 minutes in an hour?

Ever wondered why there are 60 minutes in an hour? There is no counting unit of 60 in early European culture. The civilisations of ancient Babylon and Egypt used counting units of 6 or 12 and 60 to build pyramids and predict astronomical events. – A circle is divided into 360 degrees because the ancient Babylonians were astonishingly advanced astronomers.

The first European Mechanical clocks

Salisbury clock


No-one knows exactly when mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe but the coincidence of their arrival with the return of the crusades in the late thirteenth century might make sense of the Middle-eastern counting system of 12 and 60. Early clocks struck a bell on the hour (The Latin word clocca means Ring the bell). The dial (from the same root as our word, Day and diary) came later.


The growth of Time-Consciousness

As early mechanical clocks replaced sun-dials, the transition from curiosity to the basis for the organisation of daily life seems to have taken place during the fourteenth century. Public and church clocks spread rapidly across Europe throughout the fourteenth century: The oldest working clock in the world was made for Salisbury cathedral in 1356.

Seasonal Variations in the solar day didn’t suit mechanical clocks

Cotehele clock

Cotehele clock

The result of the conflict between division of the day according to the position of the sun and division by average hours was the adoption of the system we use today: The old canonical system of counting the hours still has vestiges in our present day language – noon was the ninth hour. (literally, nona hora)

Portable Clocks

By the fifteenth century, portable clocks were being produced in increasing numbers for wealthy private owners and there was a gradual shift towards time-consciousness as a basis for organising society and commerce.

Brother Almanus, a 15th century clock-mender

AHS Journal Porrvis clock

Porrvis clock

In the late 1480s, a German monk working in Rome as a clock mender recorded thirty clocks, mostly owned by the senior hierarchy of the church; he meticulously recorded the arrangement of wheels and striking systems, sadly he did not include any significant detail about cases. His manuscript is one of most important surviving documents about clocks.

Clocks for the elite in the 16th century

In the sixteenth century the clock making trade spread throughout Europe centres in Southern Germany, Flanders, Italy, England, France and the Baltic. There is a group of high status clocks now known as the Orpheus clocks which were Fremersdorf IIproduced in Southern Germany at that time; the fact that their cases are remarkably similar but the movements are different suggests that clock-makers were not working in isolation at that time: The term, Orpheus comes from the two myths about the Orpheus character who is represented in the cast metal plates that form the cases. Firstly he is shown charming the wild animals with a stringed instrument, but in a second myth, his wife Eurydice is shown is shown emerging from the flames of Hades.

Introduction of the pendulum

In 1657 the pendulum was introduced; it was far more accurate than the previous balance wheel system so it is not surprising that few examples of older clocks and watches remain from before that watershed year. The growth of commerce and national economies coupled with the accuracy of the pendulum contributed to a rapid increase in clock production in the late seventeenth century. Before that, clocks had been the sole prerogative of the super- rich.

What does a pendulum do?

In the mid-1600s, The Italian inventor, Galileo discovered that a pendulum swings at a rate governed only by its length. A little later, another invention, the anchor escapement allowed the pendulum swing to be reduced, making clocks even more accurate. Apart from the steadying effect, the mass of a pendulum bob does not affect the time keeping qualities.

American industrialisation and the start of mass production and consumerism.

Clocks were one of the first consumer items ever to be mass-produced. The introduction of mass-produced clocks happened quite quickly in the 1840s and by the 1850s annual American clock production was in the order of millions. In response, production of English and European hand-crafted clocks had all but ceased by 1870s and at the same time the rise of consumerism, created a market place for clocks that were more affordable.

The spread of mass-produced clock production in Europe.

Although hand crafted clock production in Europe could not compete with much cheaper imported American clocks, the European clock-makers bounced back with factories across Europe. National characteristics soon developed while clock cases reflected fashions and tastes in art, design and domestic decoration.