The Invention and Impact of Mechanical Clocks

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  • 0:06 History of Time-Keeping
  • 2:03 Time-Keeping In The…
  • 3:12 The Clock's Impact On Society
  • 4:56 Time-Keeping After The…
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

Timekeeping has been a part of society since Ancient Egypt. This lesson briefly explores the history of clocks and the impact of the mechanical clock on medieval society.

History of Timekeeping

We all use timekeeping devices every day. Have you ever wondered where it all began? One of the earliest timekeeping devices could be found in Ancient Egypt. An obelisk was a long, thin monument that looked like the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. The shadow that the obelisk cast on the ground was used to tell what part of the day or year it was. Around 600 BCE, the Egyptians invented the merkhet, which was an astronomical tool. When used in pairs, the merkhets could be used to determine the time at night by observing when the stars passed by.

Sundials were created as miniature versions of an obelisk and evolved from a flat plate to more complicated designs. By 30 BCE, there were at least thirteen different types of sundials being used in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor.

The first clocks to not use the sun or stars as time-markers were water clocks called clepsydras. One of the earliest water clocks was found in an Egyptian tomb from around 1500 BCE. They were adopted by the Greeks around 320 BCE. Water clocks were sloped stone vessels that allowed water to drip consistently from a small hole in the bottom. They could also be bowl-shaped vessels that were designed to allow water to fill them in a consistent manner. There were markings on the inner surfaces to mark time passage.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, water clocks became slightly mechanical with moving parts. As time passed, bells might ring or doors might open to show small figures. In China, a mechanized clock tower was built that was over 30 feet tall. It held a rotating globe and bells that rang.

Because it was hard to create a consistent flow and pressure of water, timekeepers were not always accurate. People continued to develop timekeeping devices in hopes of improving accuracy and reliability.

Timekeeping in the Middle Ages

For much of the time between 500 and 1500 in Europe, there was little in the development of technology. Sundials continued to be used to tell certain parts of the day. Around the 10th century, people began using pocket sundials.

However, around the early part of the 14th century, a new type of clock appeared. In large Italian cities, very big mechanical clocks could be found in clock towers. Rather than being driven by the flow of water, these clocks were driven by weight distribution from heavy weights. Although they were more accurate than water clocks, the workings of these clocks could still be hard to regulate.

In the early 1500s, a new type of clock was invented that was spring-powered rather than powered by heavy weights. The use of spring-powered mechanisms allowed clocks to be made smaller and easier to move. The drawback to these clocks was that they slowed as the spring unwound.

The advancement of clock-making took a huge leap in the 1600s when the pendulum clock was invented. The earliest pendulum clocks were accurate within one minute of a day, and the later refinements were accurate within less than ten seconds a day.

The Clock's Impact on Society

Until the invention of the mechanical clock, medieval days were divided by the passing of the sun. There were parts to a day but not equal hours. As the use of mechanical clocks spread from Italy across Western Europe in the 14th century, a standardization and equalization of time began.

Based on scripture, the Catholic Church divided the day up into two twelve-hour parts, twelve daylight hours and twelve nighttime hours. Church bells rang loudly across towns to signal prayer times. The accuracy and consistency of the mechanical clock that controlled the bell's toll also began to become a part of daily life for the entire town. Essentially, the church bells and the mechanical clock now became the monitor of the working day.

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