Since the dawn of the first humans, man’s fascination with time has been undeniable. The people of ancient civilizations closely studied celestial bodies to understand the passage of time. From there, inventions and revelations continued — sundials, water clocks and candle clocks formed the earliest versions of time telling.
Incredibly, today’s base-60 time system, 60-seconds and 60-minutes, dates back to ancient Sumeria in 2000 B.C. The oldest known sundial dates to 1500 BC in Ancient Egypt. Of course, the use of sundials was dependent upon the sun shining, making it impossible to tell time on overcast days or at night. Obelisks found much earlier than the first sundials could have also been used as sundials. In the Mid- and Far East, water clocks were quite popular, and they worked on a concept of water displacement, with a particular amount of displaced water indicating a specific amount of time. These early clocks eventually found their way to Europe, where they were used until the end of the 13th century. Though accurate, these elaborate timepiece mechanisms were often very cumbersome and required that an individual constantly monitor the timekeeping device day and night.
But it wasn’t until the 14th century that clocks, as we know them today, became popular. Even the word clock emerged in the 1300s based on the French word cloche, meaning bell. Read on to learn more about a few unique clocks across the history of timekeeping.
Sundial Walking Stick. While this exciting walking stick dates to the early 20th century, the technology used by its system is ancient. By aligning the cane open at true north, the user can approximate the local time in relation to the sun’s position.
The mechanical clock is perhaps one of the most important inventions to emerge from the Renaissance. The era experienced a renewed interest in science and the arts which led to the eventual development of more practical, precise and beautiful timekeeping devices. The first known example that resembles what we think of as a clock set was built by a clockmaker in the town of Dunstable, in Bedfordshire, England in 1283. Known as a turret clock, these mechanisms were large, cumbersome, weight-driven devices that were placed in tall building towers, or turrets, in the center of town. They lacked faces or hands and simply struck the hours for all to hear.
Soon, the desire to make clocks smaller, more portable and user-friendly spurred the creation of the spring-driven clock in the 1400s. This not only allowed timekeeping to be brought in the home, but it also gave artisans the chance to showcase their technical and artistic talents in these increasingly luxurious mechanisms. During Renaissance times, turret-form or table clocks were considered scientific marvels that were reserved for only the wealthiest. A true sign of luxury, clocks are one of the greatest and most significant inventions of the Renaissance, a truly heightened period of the arts and sciences.
This three-train chain fusee musical diorama clock dates to 1790 and is a mechanical feat of many kinds. Crafted by London clockmaker Robert Ward, it features a veneered case with gilt brass ormolu accents on the outside and an artistic, mechanic masterpiece on the inside. An automaton scene appears at the hour, where boats float along the water while a charming chime plays. This marvel would have been a spectacular accomplishment for 1790. Only the wealthiest families could afford a piece as exceptional and complex as this. While other families may have just had a carriage clock or mantle clock, this was indeed a luxurious status symbol.
The term skeleton clock refers to any clock or wristwatch in which the internal mechanisms have been made visible. They are complicated to make and must be superb in every way—a marvel of mechanical precision as well as a beauty to behold, inside and out. Because of the intricacies of manufacturing a skeleton clock, their successful creation represents the absolute height of a clockmaker's skill. Many such clocks were crafted for display at international exhibitions to showcase a new technological innovation or as a unique presentation piece.
As timepieces evolved over the centuries, clockmakers became more and more creative and innovative in their designs, conceiving a diverse array of fascinating timekeeping mechanisms. Among those creations was a particularly fascinating category of pieces known as mystery clocks, so dubbed as it is often difficult to detect how the clock actually works. These clocks are immensely popular and are often the most intriguing items in any collection. Mystery clocks take many forms, including pendulum clocks, transparent dial clocks and conical clocks, such as this example.
Unlike more traditional cocks whose pendulums swing from side to side, the conical clock's "pendulum" moves in a continuous circular motion. This constant three-dimensional motion was designed to overcome the inertia of a swinging pendulum, which stopped for a fraction of a second to swing in the opposite direction. Thus, the continuously rotating ball, most often held by a maiden or other figure and driven by a suspension mechanism hidden inside of the base of the figure, provided the highest level of timekeeping accuracy.