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The Mouse Ran Up The Clock

By Allan Eastman

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Hickory, Dickory, Dock

Astronomical clock in Praque, Czech Republic

This astronomical clock, found at St Mary's Church in Gdansk, Poland, was used during the 1400s.


Inevitably, the biggest breakthrough in Timekeeping Tools came, as so many had through our history, because of the needs of Human religion.

The Roman Catholic Church in medieval times had developed a series of prayers that had to be performed at the same point each 24 hour day – Matins, Lauds, Nones, Vespers and so on. It was usually the job of a young Monk or acolyte to keep track of the time with an hourglass, water clock or sundial, then at the appropriate point, ring a bell to call all the faithful to prayer. Like all Human systems, this was subject to Human error. Monks fell asleep, acolytes daydreamed their way long past the appointed moment, people forgot.

No one knows exactly how or where it happened – probably England or France - but in the early 13th Century, the first mechanical timekeeping Tools were developed, probably by combining existing parts from Water Clock and Bell Ringing mechanisms. The key elements of these early devices were the supply of power from the controlled descent of weights and a system of control called an escapement, which alternately stopped and then released the movement of the system.

This quickly evolved into a revolving regularly pegged wheel with a flange that engaged and disengaged the wheel as it turned. This movement created the distinctive “Tick...Tock” noise which became the universal sound for the passage of Time.

Strange to us, the earliest Clocks had no visual calibration to them at all, no clock face. The mechanical system rang a bell at the correct time for prayers. Thus, our word “Clock” derives from the Latin word for bell, clocca, probably either through French, cloche, or German, glock. Similarly, the midafternoon prayer, Nones eventually became the common English word for midday, Noon.

These early Clocks also suffered from inaccuracy due to their primitive technology and the forces of friction and wear. They were usually still checked and reset against the older systems of sundial and water clock.

The use of these new Time Tools spread quickly across medieval Europe and before long someone had the idea of adding a face to the clock to provide a visual representation of the Time as well. The earliest clocks only had an hour hand, usually represented on a circle divided into a 12 hour period, appearing in the 1300s. Minute hands start to come into general use in the mid 1400s and clocks that show seconds about 100 years later.


With the rise of the Renaissance, it became a point of pride for cathedrals and increasingly, civic buildings to have the most advanced clock on display. As these mechanisms became more sophisticated, various other astronomical data were added to them – the phases of the Moon, the Day of the Week, the Month of the Year and so on. Some clockworks at the time also featured various animated characters – mechanical Knights that charged around on the hour, dancing Milkmaids and Cows, a Procession of Saints and eventually on a more prosaic level, the Cuckoo Clock.

The demand built for smaller clocks that could be used personally in the household or office but the mechanical system of falling weights was problematic on a reduced scale. In the 1400s the first spring driven clocks were devised where the timekeeping movement was controlled by the release of the latent energy in a tightly wound spring. This allowed for major miniaturization to the extent that pocket watches made their first appearance soon after and Queen Elizabeth I even had a tiny clock she wore as a ring on her finger. This is clearly an early precursor of the ubiquitous modern wrist watch and eventually, our own hand held cell phone clocks.

Looking for extra precision in Timekeeping Tools, Galileo Galilei noticed the regularity of a swinging pendulum and made drawings of a clock powered by a pendulum but he never built it. The Dutch Natural Philosopher, Christian Huygens, eventually measured the accuracy of a pendulum’s swing and built the first pendulum clock in 1670. During this period, advancements were also made in the escapement mechanisms which greatly increased clock accuracy.

A few years later, in 1675 the Royal Observatory was established at Greenwich, England by Royal charter. Its mandate was to be the main research center to coordinate astronomical observations and timekeeping, with its original mission to discover a way to accurately discern longitude. (We’ll deal with this interesting highlight in the story of Time in the next instalment of All The Time In The World.) Greenwich rapidly became the main scientific establishment for matters relating to Time and its own clocks became the standard of accurate time measurement.

In the 1800s one enterprising English family used Greenwich’s clocks as part of an innovative money making operation. They would go once a week to Greenwich and set their own clocks to the Observatory’s Master Clock. Then, they would spread out all over southern England and sell the correct Time to people and institutions who wanted accurate timekeeping. The apparent success of this clever business illustrates how important it was becoming in Society for people to have the correct Time to coordinate their activities.

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