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How the clock was invented? The discovery of timekeeping

A brief history of timekeeping

A woman stands with a cellphone in her hand, reading an article on the history of the time.

When humans first started to measure time, the hours of the day were of different lengths. Then the mechanical clock fundamentally changed human life. The history of timekeeping culminates in the invention of the mechanical clock.

It was not until the 14th century that people begun to measure time in smaller units. Until then, humans relied on nature to determine the time of the day. In the 6th century, a demand for more accurate time measurement arose in the medieval monasteries of Europe.

The monks followed the ancient Greeks and Romans who originally divided the day into 12 hours, and divided each day and each night into twelve equal units - hours. To determine the time of the day, the monks used a variety of timekeeping devices.

Historians are unable to determine when exactly the first mechanical clock was invented, but according to researchers the earliest mechanical clocks originated in Europe, at the beginning of the Late Middle Ages (1300-1453).

The invention of the mechanical clock, in the 14th century, fundamentally changed human perception of timekeeping. As the use of mechanical clocks spread from Italy across Western Europe a standardization of time began. Enabling Western societies to prosper in the Renaissance and Age of Discovery, which began in the 15th century.

The invention of timekeeping

Most people in the Middle Ages did not know what timekeeping is - and they perceived the passage of time in a fundamentally different way than we do today. Time was above all the natural transition from day to night and the changing of the seasons. People did not experience time as something linear, something progressing, but rather regarded it as an eternal cycle.

It was not until the 14th century that people began to take possession of time themselves, created smaller units of time, and eventually invented the mechanical clock. For the French historian Marc Bloch, one of the most important medieval historians of the 20th century, the progress in time measurement at that time brought about a fundamental upheaval.

For Bloch, the changed perception of time is nothing less than one of the most profound revolutions in the intellectual and practical life of our societies and one of the major events in late medieval history.

Timekeeping prior to the invention of time measurement devices

At the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries, the outstanding Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo had declared that time was God given. It was determined by the cycles of nature, sunrise and sunset limiting the working day. According to Augustine, it was not necessary to measure smaller units of time.

In order to name points in time, people said: "when the cock crows", "in the greatest heat of the midday", "at dusk", "after sunset" or "in the middle of the night". In an epoch in which almost everyone's livelihood depended on agriculture, this rough time pattern was quite sufficient. It was no different in ancient times, when the Greeks and Romans used water clocks (mechanized clepsydras), the majority of people lived without exact time indications.

In Christian Europe, the priest announced the dates of the next week during Sunday Mass, for example 11 November: On the one hand, this was the day of St. Martin. On the other hand, in many regions the agricultural business year also ended on this day, which is why rents and interest were due and had to be redefined.

The number of church holidays was considerable: there were probably 70 to 100 holidays per year (not counting Sundays), about two in every week. So many calendar dates had a very concrete meaning for people. 

The day, on the other hand, as a unit of measurement based on astronomical findings, as a measure of time in an abstract sense, detached from concrete use or purpose - this neither interested nor was perceived the the farmers and their families.

The invention of timekeeping devices

The monks in the monasteries, which prospered since the early Middle Ages, held a different idea in respect to timekeeping: the monks quickly discovered the need to be able to measure time more precisely and above all in smaller units.

In 529 the Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Order of Saint Benedict, had demanded fixed times for prayers, readings from the Holy Scriptures, meals, work and sleep in the rules of the Order.

In order to comply with these rules, the obedient brothers had only one option: time had to be measured precisely and strictly regulated. So the day was divided into hours - but differently than we know it today.

The monks divided each day and each night into twelve exactly equal sections. They understood a day to be the time when it was light and a night to be the time when it was dark. This meant that the hours varied in length depending on the season. 

For example, one hour of the day lasted up to 80 minutes in summer, but only about 40 minutes in winter. On March 21st and September 21st, day and night were of equal length; on these specific dates an hour corresponded to 60 minutes exactly, as today. 

To determine the sequence of events, the monks used different timekeeping devices:
  • Sundials - the earliest timekeeping devices. Sundials indicate the time by the position of the shadow of an object exposed to the sun.
  • Water clocks - these devices measure the passage of time by letting a certain amount of liquid to flow from one vessel to another in a predetermined amount of time.
  • Oil-lamp clocks - whose oil consumption indicated the passage of time.
  • Candle clocks  - in which the burning down of the wax indicated the passage of time.

Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman and renowned scholar of the 6th century Ostrogothic kingdom, praised sundials and water clocks as highly useful inventions in his textbook on monastic life. But these timepieces had fundamental weaknesses. The sundial only worked when the sun was shining, the water meter had to be constantly supervised and kept running. And both were highly inaccurate.

A solution to this problem was not found until the High Middle Ages. Now, even outside the monastery walls, the desire to be able to tell the time more accurately was slowly emerging. 

The number of merchants, craftsmen, small businessmen and officials increased considerably. These professions lost touch with the rhythm of nature; the work of many people in the larger cities became independent of the seasons, of light and dark.

It became increasingly important for people to be able to make fixed appointments, to be able to meet on an agreed time. Work was also organised more and more efficiently: from around the 14th century onwards, bells were used to regulate the working day of cloth makers in weaving mills and other industries in the emerging communities of Italy, Flanders and northern France.

When was the first mechanical clock invented?

At that time moral theologians also discovered a new sin - that of wasting time. Thus Domenico Cavalca, an Italian writer who died in Pisa in 1342, categorically proclaimed that the idle man who loses possession of time, who does not measure it, is like an animal and does not deserve to be considered a human being.

So clocks were needed that were reliable and easy to use; a fundamental technical innovation in the field of timekeeping was needed.

Mechanical clock Galileo Galilei inspired Christian Huygens in the design of the first pendulum clock in 1656, it was the most accurate so far with a margin of error of 5 minutes per day. The best known was the Cuckoo clock. It is not known for sure who invented the first mechanical watch, but the first found date from 1290, with a mechanism consisting of a set of rotating wheels that were driven by a weight hung on each rope.
The clock is an invention that divides the day more accurately than those empirical observations made before

Who developed the first mechanical clock, when and where exactly? Despite many efforts, science has not been able to clarify this to this day. However, historians are able to narrow down the period in which the moving hands of the earliest mechanical clocks began to run with a high degree of accuracy. It must have been around the year 1300.

At the end of the 13th to well into the 14th century, the transition from the unequal (temporal) hours to the equal (equinoctial) hours known today also took place. 

Robertus Anglicus (Robert the Englishman) described already in 1271 that people in some cities changed to uniform hours. In a report on a lunar eclipse of 1275, a text written in the Austrian municipality of Klosterneuburg spoke of hora sexta artificialis diei, the sixth hour of the artificial day, a reference to the modern calendar. The Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri, known as Dante, wrote of equally long hours in his treatise Convivio, which he wrote around 1306.

The first documented mention of a mechanical clock, as far as we know today, dates from 1335, when the technical masterpiece was on display in the chapel of the Visconti castle in Milan.

City clocks attached to church or public buildings now became a symbol for of a new era. In 1336, craftsmen installed the first tower clock at the Church of San Gottardo in Milan, which chimed every hour, 24 times a day. 

Only a few years later, in 1344, a similar clock was installed on a tower in Padua. Cities outside Italy, such as London or Avignon, quickly followed. In Germany, too, public time displays appeared for the first time. In 1364 a clock visible to the public was set in motion in Augsburg, in 1375 in Hamburg and in 1385 in Cologne.

Such timepieces stood for something radically modern in human thought: time became independent of both natural phenomena and the perception of the individual, time could now be measured objectively.

A brief history of the mechanical clock

In the second half of the 14th century, the mechanical clock spread throughout the major cities of Europe. Most of these clocks did not yet have two moving hands, but often only an hour hand and a chime that announced the hour of the day.

Clock towers quickly developed into a prestige object. In 1370 the French King Charles V ordered that all bells in Paris should be aligned with the clock of the Royal Palace. In 1382 Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, confiscated the tower clock of the Flemish city of Kortrijk in order to repress its inhabitants.

In 1481, a petition was submitted to the Lyon City Council stating that there is a strong need for a large clock. The reasoning behind the petition was that if a public clock to be set up, more merchants will come to the fairs, the citizens will live more cheerfully and contentedly and lead a more orderly life, and the city will prosper.

A public clock in those days cost a fortune. Not only the complicated construction was expensive, but also the maintenance of the vulnerable equipment. Thus, from 1449 at the latest, the City of Vienna paid a watchmaker who constantly maintained, adjusted and improved the clock at St. Stephen's Cathedral. Whereby the early mechanical clocks were rather imprecise, these clocks were either 20 minutes early of late.

The early watchmakers were usually blacksmiths, locksmiths or cannon makers. At the beginning of the 15th century, for example, a certain Pierre Cudrifin from Fribourg in what is now Lorraine, described himself as a magister bombardarum et horologium (master of guns and movements).

Around 1400, springs were used for the first time as an energy source in clockworks, making it possible to build smaller and even portable clocks. Thus in 1481 Louis XI of France bought a clock with a dial and striking mechanism about which it was said that the king bought this clock to take it with him everywhere. 

The ruler was so proud of his mobile time display, certainly the most exciting technical accessory of his time, that he even had the clock depicted on a portrait of himself.

At the end of the Middle Ages, people perceived time completely differently than 500 or 1000 years before. Time was no longer divine, but worldly, and the individual was responsible for how he or she dealt with it. The influential Italian architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti considered time to be one of the three fundamental human possessions - along with the soul and the body.

How did the invention of the clock impact society?

Up to the present day, this change in consciousness should have an enormous influence. In his cultural history of technology, Lewis Mumford, an important US American scholar of the 20th century, did not refer to the steam engine as the key machine of the industrial age - but he deems it to be the clock.

The new significance of time at the end of the 15th century is impressively demonstrated in the diary of the Viennese Johannes Tichtel. In his records, which cover the years 1477 to 1495, the doctor and university professor also recorded the births of his three sons - with a precision unparalleled at the time.

For example, he noted that his eldest son Leopold was born on 4 June 1480 two hours and three minutes after noon, the second son on 8 March 1482 at the first hour and third minute after midnight, and the third boy on 11 August 1484 a quarter to the sixth hour in the morning. It could not have been more innovative than that at the time. 


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