Clocks – not just another pretty face

Why do clocks run that direction? Why are they called hands?

Inventors living in the northern hemisphere were trying to mimic the movement of the sun over a sundial, and the shadows moving across a sundial move that direction in the northern hemisphere.

Noon, or 12 o’clock (of the clock) is at the top because of the sundial tradition. The word noon comes from the Latin word ‘nona’ or ninth, because in Roman times, midday was the ninth hour of the day or la hora nona.

The first timepieces were actually bells set up in the town square to call the public to prayer. Like cloche in French, clock literally means bell.

Soon, dials and indicators were added for a visual display in addition to the audible, but the peasants were illiterate and couldn’t read or do math. They could perform calculations by counting on their fingers. Four slash marks were much easier for them to contend with than “IV” when taking one away from five. That’s why when Roman numerals are used, the IV is traditionally IIII to this day.

O’clock is an abbreviation for “of the clock” or “of the bells.”

Early clocks in the 14th century, had a carving shaped like a hand, and the dial moved around it. Soon, the creators realized the hand could be made to move instead, and in 1690 a minute hand was introduced when the pendulum and anchor escapement were perfected, making precision time keeping possible.

Time hasn’t always been divided the same, at least not in France. During the French Revolution, in 1793, France attempted to introduce a decimal time system with 10 hours in the day, 100 decimal minutes and 100 decimal seconds per minute.

The decimal hour was almost twice as long as the present hour, or 144 minutes. The decimal minute was slightly longer than the present minute at 86 seconds, and the decimal second was slightly shorter…0.86 sec. Clocks were manufactured with both markings, but obviously decimal time didn’t catch on, and France discontinued its mandatory use on April 7, 1795.

A case can be made for daylight saving time being made before Benjamin Franklin. Albert Edward, The Prince of Wales, liked to be outdoors as much as possible, so the clocks all over Sandringham Estate were advanced by half an hour to give him more time for hunting and shooting. King George V maintained this custom during his lifetime, but King Edward VIII abolished it on his accession in 1936.

Photo courtesy of Jessie Harrel, WANACOMMONS 

Big Ben is actually the name of the bell, not the clock, inside the tower in London. It was recently named Elizabeth Tower, for the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year, 2012.


Skip Kerr’s Clock Collection

The Official Website of the British Royal Family

Daylight Savings Time



This post is a Coffee Break Escape – 7 Minute Adventures Exploring the World Together

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3 thoughts on “Clocks – not just another pretty face

  1. Joanne Bischof

    How romantic…could you imagine if we still said “of the bells.” I love it! Your coffee break escape is such a great idea, Bev. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Big Ben in life a few years ago and its such a special memory.

    1. Bev Post author

      Thanks, Joanne. It is romantic, now that you mention it. I am having fun with these coffee breaks…now if I only had more time to write many more! Get it…time?


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