FLOBECK: When water ruled the world of time

By: Jack Flobeck
October 6, 2013
photo -

Sounds implausible, but historically true - Daniel Boorstin, in his comprehensive book, 'The Inventors,' cited the most important developments man needed to invent to know his world and himself. They were: the clock, the compass, the telescope, the microscope, and the printing press.

These needs made sense as knowledge progressed, but first we needed a reliable and inexpensive way to 'keep the hours;' when work starts, when work was over, and how to figure payroll and taxes. The sundial succeeded for a while, but failed on cloudy days. Water was a natural media to drip from one measured bowl into another measured bowl, and gave birth to the expression you're running out of time. Water was an economical and reliable measuring stick in that a gallon in the spring was a gallon in the summer, and a cubic foot weighed 64 pounds this year as well as next year. If water were scarce, locals in desert climes sometimes substituted sand which worked unless you selected sand with both larger and smaller grains.

The Egyptians buried a water clock with Amenhotep I around 1500 BC. These clocks were popular in many cases because they didn't require celestial observations to keep the time. The Greeks called their water clocks, clepsydras, or water thief. As you would expect, Babylon, India, Persia, followed in the Egyptian footsteps, but the ultimate machines were built in China. By 1088 AD Su Seng built an astronomical, astrological clock with a water driven mechanism, over three stories tall, with a bronze power-driven armillary sphere for observations, an automatically rotating celestial globe, and manikins that rang bells and held tablets in their hands, indicating the time.

Water clocks were the technological drivers for all future clock improvements like precise gearing and wheels, escapement mechanisms, and were passed on to future generations of clock makers. Cathedrals as well as small town churches across Europe began to ring bells to mark the quarters, halves, and full hours of the day.

You may ask, why so important to know 'the exact time?' As man became curious about what was over the mountain or across the sea, he could navigate by shooting the stars, but couldn't tell how far he had come from land without an accurate knowledge of the time.

The English, an island people relying on their ships for trade and food, were the primary proponents of finding a portable device, or a ship's chronometer, to tell the exact time; and in 1714 Parliament instituted a contest for "a person or persons as shall discover the longitude at sea," such an invention to receive a 10,000 guinea prize. Spain and France had similar contests running, with the Spanish offering 10,000 ducats while the French offered 100,000 florins. Time was extremely valuable even in those days.

The winner was John Harrison, but along the way Robert Hooke had finished his seminal research into pendulums and springs, the clock industry bounded into new horizons; unleashing Captain Cook, Vasco da Gama, and our own discoverer, Christopher Columbus to redraw the world's maps and compose new centers of power. From 1500 BC until about 1700 AD with the development of chronometer; Water ruled the world of time, just as the atomic clock has now supplanted all others and is the new standard for accuracy.


Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at colojackf@msn.com.

Comment Policy

LoginORRegister To receive a better ad experience

Learn more
You are reading 0 of your of 0 free premium stories for this month read

Register Today To get to up to 4 more free stories each and every month

  • Get access to commenting on articles
  • Access to 4 more premium pieces of content!
  • See fewer annoying advertisements
We hope you enjoyed your 4 free premium stories
Continue reading now by logging in or registering
Register Now
Already registered? Login Now