Maybe the idea of the hourglass came about when a beachcomber, long ago, scooped up a handful of sand and watched it slowly trickle out between the fingers. It could’ve happened that way. Well, no one really knows how it was “invented” or who invented it. Some say that the hourglass, which is also know as the “sand clock”, was created as far back as 1300 when it started showing up on the shopping lists of sea vessels. Also about that time, it turned up in Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescos and in written records as well. Certainly the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had the know how, technology and materials needed to create one. Maybe they did? But when it comes down to it, the who, what and when of it doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that the hourglass was invented.
It found its place as a convenient, dependable and accurate way of keeping track of the time. At the beginning, it was used on ships. Neither the water’s humidity nor the ship’s swaying interfered very much with the steady and even movement of the sand. One sea captain, Ferdinand Magellan, was especially keen on them. When he sailed the seas, each of his vessels kept on board eighteen hourglasses to track the time. The job of turning the hourglass on a ship fell to the ship’s page, who then rang a bell at each turn, to indicate the amount of time that had passed. The speed and the distance traveled by the ship was then calculated and entered into the ship’s log. Missing a turn of the hourglass would profoundly effect navigational calculations, the crew’s work schedule and more; woe to the forgetful page who missed a turn!; it often resulted in austere disciplinary action.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the hourglass was being used in workplaces, churches, and especially in kitchens. In fact, it had become a common household item. The making of the “sand” was a routine job for the woman of the house. The earliest recipe appeared in a household treatise “The Goodman Of Paris” written by the Menagier de Paris in the late 1300’s. Among recipes for preserves, glue, ink and toothache remedies is the one for making the filling material for the hourglass. The recipe says “Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it out to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good.” Other materials were used such as powdered egg shells, sometimes mixed with red ochre or plumbago. Lead and tin were also used.
Eventually, the new spring-powered, wood-geared, mechanical clock was invented. But due to its expense and size, the popularity of the hourglass prevailed for a time. After 1500, with steady progress in design and production, more portable, more accurate and less costly versions or mechanical clocks emerged. They were convenient and made keeping track of time easy. The once very popular hourglass eventually became less useful, but didn’t completely disappear. Because of its aesthetic form and materials it was an attractive design piece for Renaissance artists who used it as a symbol of mortality, empiricism and the sciences. Today the hourglass is used as an artistic decorative piece, a timer for games and eggs, and as a symbol in computers and the Unicode Standard. It continues on as a universal and endearing icon. That’s versatility!
Unlike most any other timepiece you will find anywhere, the hourglass visually represents the present as being between the past and the future; the sand on the bottom representing the time that has passed, the sand on the top, the time yet to come, and the sand in the middle, the all important now. This has made it an enduring symbol of time itself.
For centuries the hourglass has been with us, and has certainly found a colorful place in human history. But isn’t it nice to have a decorative modern day analog clock on your wall, shelf or living room floor? Unlike an hourglass which puts you to work with constant hourly turning, the modern day clock is wound just once daily, weekly or not at all if it’s battery powered. And you never have to worry about missing a turn. So why not take a browse through our fine selection of well made clocks.
Photo # 1 – Fresco painting – en.wikipedia.com
Photo # 2 – Sailing ship – forum.paradoxplaza.com
Photo # 3 – Nautical hourglass – indiamart.com
Photo # 4 – Hourglass icon (blue) – dayonedigital.co.uk
Photo # 5 – Hourglass icon (green) – icons.mysitemyway.com
Photo # 6 – Hourglass icon (red) – iconsdb.com