Telling Time in the Renaissance, Part II: From Water Clocks to the Pendulum

Last week, in Part I on my series on Renaissance time keeping, we discussed the Julian calendar’s Roman roots and its Gregorian revision the 16th century. This week, we explore the evolution of the clock in Renaissance Italy and its implications.
There is no clock like the Present. It is a colored steel circle with a single hand. Instead of counting the hours, minutes or seconds, it turns a tiny bit each day. A full year later, it will make a complete revolution of the clock face.
The Kickstarter Handbook, which references the Kickstarter campaign which funded the Present’s creation, credits its creator, Scott Thrift, with saying: “I’m at war with seconds. The second hand is a recent invention. I think it’s only 120 years old or so. It damages the way that life actually is. There’s a larger scale at work.”
Value judgments aside, Thrift is completely mistaken about the second hand. Second hands measuring 1/60ths of a minute have been in use since 1670 or earlier. Their introduction in the last century of the Renaissance represented advancements in the design and accuracy of clocks. The roots of these breakthroughs stem from the centuries prior to the Renaissance, and their attainment made the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions possible. Few things have changed the world like the reckoning of time.
In ancient times, time proved more difficult to measure. The only available tools were crude, and frequently unreliable. Hour glasses and candles could measure specific lengths of time, but candles in particular suffered from inconsistencies. Sundials could only measure time during the day. The water clock—a mechanism which measured time according to the flow of water in our out of a vessel—proved to be the most reliable ancient timepiece. (Wikipedia, 2013) However, the flow of a liquid varies with temperature, rendering the water clock an imprecise instrument of time.
In the late 13th century, inventors developed mechanical clocks in Europe. These early devices did not have the accuracy of today’s clocks, but they were a breakthrough. As they developed, mechanical clocks proved to be the most precise and accurate timepieces ever made, prior to the invention of digital and atomic clocks.
Indeed, the principles inherent to mechanical clocks still apply to electronic timepieces. Contemporary clocks use a power source to activate an oscillator, which is an element capable of reacting or moving at even intervals. Another component, called the controller, regulates the amount of power sent to the oscillator, keeping the intervals exact. A counter chain allows the device to reckon elapsed time internally, and the indicatoris the interface which allows us to read the time. The combination of power source, oscillator and controller is what permits mechanical clocks to measure time precisely.
The earliest mechanical clocks used running water as their power source, and the available online literature indicates that the nature of their oscillators is unclear. As the technology improved, falling weights replaced running water as a source of power. Springs eventually replaced weights as clock makers strived to miniaturize the giant mechanisms running monastic or public clock towers. The 15th and 16thcenturies saw many advancements in the design of clocks, and we have Galileo Galilei to thank for one particularly iconic invention.
The oscillator is, perhaps, the most essential component of modern clocks. A precise oscillator makes for a precise clock, and a clock cannot be more accurate than its oscillator. Galileo, in a set of experiments with weights swinging from ropes, discovered a relationship between the length of the rope and the frequency with which it swung in complete arcs. Christian Huygens applied this principle to clocks by adding a pendulum as its oscillator, and unwittingly spawned childhood fascinations with grandfather clocks for generations to come.
His 1656 invention also vastly improved the accuracy of timekeeping, and William Clement’s development of the anchor escapement in 1670 improved the accuracy of clocks even further. At the close of the Renaissance, people could finally track time from second to second. Measuring time so precisely allowed scientists to better understand and quantify the world around us. These advancements would later enable the Industrial Revolution, where the quest for efficiency gave time an entirely new meaning.
Oddly, the inventors of the first mechanical clocks likely had little in common with the sort of Dickensian personality that sees the second hand as a knife to chop away needless, sentimental waste. They probably thought more like Scott Thrift, the man who invented the Present.
The evidence lies in the very word “clock.” The monks who made and used the first ones called them horologes, from the Greek horologia, meaning “to tell the hour.” (Wikipedia, 2013) These earliest devices did not always have faces. They didn’t need them. The religious interest in keeping time stems from a desire to cultivate harmony with what is seen as the natural order of things. To know the time is to know the context in which one lives. Time can bring people together in worship and celebration. Time, in its affirmation, can connect the present to eternity.
Among the first uses of the horologe was to announce times of prayer or services. Such counting of sacred time would be of especial interest to monks, who attempt to live in a constant meditation on existence. Even when the indication of hours was a concern, the horologes often announced the time solely through the ringing of bells. As the devices entered common use, people eventually forsook the word “horologe.” So striking was the sound of church bells as they told the time that common folk renamed the horologe in their honor. The Celts called bells cloganor clocca, and so the English word “clock” came to represent a device which measures time.
Clock.”, 2013.
Second.”, 2013.
Water Clock.”, 2013.
A Brief History of Antique Clocks,” from Savage & Polite’s Antique Clock Price Guide.
The Kickstarter Handbook. Don Steinberg, 2012.
The Present.”


  1. Unknown says:

    this was a great read, thank you for correcting me. I'm the scott present clock creator artist person. I was worried that my quote for that book would be taken out of context. What I meant was that the second hand became widely popularized as a inspiration for and during the industrial revolution. However, I stand by my statement of being at war with seconds. I do not feel like seconds are relatable to the modern human experience in the same way they were when assembly lines became popular. I'm about to release a new clock to follow up thepresent and broaden my offering in the world of time, it's called simply, Today. A 24 hour clock that has no lines or numbers – only a calming image of the entire day at a glance!

  2. Aaron Miner says:

    You're quite welcome! I must say I did not expect to hear from the creator of the Present himself, and I'm not quite sure how you managed to wander onto my humble blog. Nonetheless, it is an honor to meet you.

    You are probably correct that the second hand became more prevalent during the Industrial Revolution, considering the importance of temporal precision in manufacturing. While I don't quite share your antipathy towards seconds (at least, not on analog clocks—digital clocks are another matter), I do agree that we tend to get too caught up in the reckoning of the present rather than the experience thereof.

    To my mind, the Industrial Revolution, for all of its benefits, came at the cost of transforming the human being into a machine. Many blame science for this feat, but science views human existence in a mechanical fashion in order to explain how we work. The true distinction between a machine and a living mind is not how they work, but why: a living being exists for its own sake, a machine exists only as a tool for others.

    I look forward to seeing Today when it is released. Please do send a link when you have one, and I hope you'll stick around to read more of what the blog has to offer. The site will be down for a while beginning tonight on account of upgrades, but we'll be back next week with regular (or semi-regular) updates.

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