If you don’t know what you don’t know, then how can you know that you don’t know it? This article is about things you never knew about clocks. And if you really don’t know about them, you will after you read this blog. So here we go, here’s our first “I never knew that” fact:
1. Who would ever think that the ancient sun dial has everything to do with why our clock hands move clockwise and not counter clockwise? Here’s the tie-in: long before the invention of the mechanical clock, people used the sun dial to tell time and in the Northern Hemisphere, and the shadow on the sun dial moved clockwise as the sun went across the sky. So, the medieval clock makers of Europe, naturally designed the clock hands to move in the same familiar direction as the shadow on a sun dial. If the sundial had been invented in the Southern Hemisphere, maybe our clocks would now be turning counterclockwise; and if that were so, we’d probably be calling that direction “clockwise.”
Comment: Can you imagine reading a clock if the hands went the other way?
2. Who “nose” about this one? In the old days, some people used to place kerosene soaked rags inside of their grandfather clocks, thinking that it would prevent rust from forming on the metal parts.
Comment: But how did that smell?
3. This one is one of those “no–no’s”. As a general rule, never move the hour hand independently of the minute hand on a chiming or striking clock. Without your having to touch the hour hand, it naturally moves when you move the minute hand. Uh oh, if you do move it, that will probably throw the strike out of sync with the hands.
Comment: Oops!.. off to see the clock doctor.
4. For this one we go back about 400 years. Galileo Galilei was attending a church service and noticed a swinging lantern. That led him to the discovery that the pendulum could be used to accurately measure time. Comment: What a brain.
5. Now for, guess what? Telephone companies. These days they have their own atomic clocks to keep their computers in sync with one another. When you call someone hundreds of miles away your words are broken up and transmitted between computers at both ends. Every second these computers jump back and forth thousands of times between one call and another. For that to work, the computers have to stay in perfect sync, and the atomic clocks make that possible. They’re what make your phone conversations comprehensible.
Comment: I’m glad something does!
6. Ugh! In the late 18th century Great Britain imposed a hefty tax on every clock in use, even in private homes. It was known as the “Parliament Clock Tax”. The new tax was resented by most. So clocks and watches ceased to be bought and droves of clock makers literally went out of business. Within a year the burdensome tax was removed.
Comment: Hey, what about a tax refund?
7. We thought we were done with “no–no’s”, really, but we just had to squeeze another one in. Never give a clock as a gift in China. The Chinese word “sòng zhōng” means “clock”. But it’s pronounced the same as another Chinese word which means “terminating” or “end”. That’s why, in the Chinese culture, clocks are often associated with funerals, and giving someone a clock as a gift, signifies the end of relationships or even the end of the gift receiver’s life.
Comment: Whew, I’m glad I found out now!
8. Would you have ever expected this? Old penny coins are what keep London’s Big Ben clock of the Palace of Westminster accurate. Each coin added to or taken off the pendulum makes the clock go faster or slower by 4 tenths of a second in a 24 hour period.
Comment: Is this what they mean by penny-wise?
9. Some people just don’t like to sleep late. Levi Hutchins was one of them. Because he believed in starting his workday on time and early, the 26 year old clockmaker, in 1787, invented the very first mechanical alarm clock to rouse him from sleep. But it would only ring at 4 a.m., and that’s the way he wanted it. His sole purpose for inventing the clock was to avoid oversleeping. He never patented or mass-produced his invention.
Comment: Is 4 a.m. before the rooster crows?
10. Did life’s daily work and play eventually become more precise because of this invention? It sure did, after the world’s first minute hand was invented in 1577 by Jost Bürgi, a mathematician, Swiss clockmaker, and a maker of astronomical instruments. Burgi’s invention was part of a clock made for Tycho Brahe, an astronomer who needed an accurate timekeeping device for his work.
Comment: Wait a minute! What about the second hand?
So, now you know what you didn’t know. So what?…
Well, you won’t have to go to the clock doctor, and you know who not to give a clock to as a gift, and who to thank for the minute hand and the alarm clock, and why the hands of your clock go in the direction they do, and why you might catch a whiff of kerosene around an old grandfather clock and those other handy tidbits. But, I bet there’s still plenty that you don’t know…well, I guess you can’t know everything, can you?
Photo # 1 – Sun dial – University of South Florida
Photo # 2 – Diagram of pendulum motion – millersville.edu
Photo # 3 – Tax time clock face – eb3experience.com
Photo # 4 – Penny coins from Great Britain