The Origins and Evolution of the Clock

The Origins and Evolution of the Clock

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Wall clocks are probably the most common objects in our homes. Almost all houses have one or two clocks hanging on the walls, and what about offices, schools, train stations and public spaces. Clocks are invaluable for managing the time of day and staying on time with our loved ones (or not)... No wonder they are so present.

As you have seen, we are total fans of clocks here at Wall Clock Shop we thought it was essential to go back in time and see the history of these famous clocks. And believe me it's a story worth reading!

How were the clocks created?

Clocks are "tools" that count and show time passing. For thousands of years, Man has measured time in various ways, notably by following the movements of the sun. At the beginning, the famous sundials appeared, then the candle clocks were created in the 9th century. They allowed to know the time that had passed. But they were however very imprecise and finally the hourglass which was more like a chronometer. The hourglass only appeared in the thirteenth century, but one suspects the existence, since the second century of our era, of an instrument similar to the hourglass, containing oil instead of sand.

Our present system uses a system with a 60-minute base, i.e. a 60 minute and 60 second clock is the system that everybody learns, this system dates back to 2000 years B.C. in ancient Sumer.

Sundial Clepsydre

Chronology of the evolution of timekeeping

The first mechanical clocks were invented in Europe around the beginning of the 14th century and were the common time measuring system until the invention of the pendulum clock in 1656. There were many elements that came together over time to give us the current measuring parts we see today. Let us explore together the evolution of these components and the cultures that contributed to their development.

Sundials and Obelisks

The ancient Egyptian obelisks, built around 3,500 BC, are also among the first shadow clocks. The oldest known sundial dates from Egypt, about 1500 BC. Sundials themselves have their origin in ghost clocks, which were the first devices used to measure the different parts of the day.

Sundial Clock

Hydro Clock

The first prototype water clock was invented by the Greeks. They built a water clock, called a clepsydra, where rising waters graduated the time.

Clepsydras were more useful than sundials - they could be used indoors, during the night, and also when the sky was cloudy, although they were not as accurate. Greek water clocks became more accurate around 325 B.C., and they were fitted with hour hands, making the reading of the clock more accurate and convenient.

Hydro Clock

Candle Clock

The first mention of candle clocks comes from a Chinese poem, written around 520 A.D. According to the poem, the graduated candle was used to measure time by burning, it was a good way to determine the time at night. Similar candles were used in Japan until the beginning of the 10th century.

Candle Clock


Hourglasses were the first reliable, but reusable and relatively easy to manufacture, time measuring devices. From the 15th century onwards, hourglasses were used almost exclusively for telling the time at sea. An hourglass consists of two glass cones connected vertically by a narrow neck that allows a controlled flow of material, usually sand as it is called, from the upper to the lower cone. Hourglasses are still in use today. They were also adopted for use in the kitchen to determine the cooking time of a beautiful boiled egg, but we also find them in churches for mass.

Hourglass Clock

Monastery Clock

The first medieval European watchmakers were almost all Christian monks. Indicating the time became a necessity in daily life to follow religious services. The first clock was built by the future Pope Sylvester II around the year 996. Much more sophisticated clocks and church clock towers were later built by monks. Peter Lightfoot, a 14th century monk from Glastonbury, built one of the oldest surviving clocks which is still in use at the Science Museum in London.

Monastery Wall Clock

Minute hand

In 1577, Jost Burgi invented the minute hand. Burgi's invention was part of a clock made for Tycho Brahe, an astronomer who needed an accurate clock to observe the stars.

Pendulum clock

In 1656, the pendulum clock was invented by Christian Huygens, making clocks even more accurate. A pendulum clock is a clock that uses a pendulum to measure time. What makes it so accurate is that it is a harmonic oscillator: it oscillates in a precise time interval according to its length and resists oscillations at other speeds. However, the pendulum must remain stationary in order to operate, so moving it will affect the movement of the pendulum causing inaccuracies.

Until the 1930s the pendulum was the most accurate "timepiece" in the world. This explains its widespread use throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1930s and 1940s it was eventually replaced by much cheaper synchronous electric clocks.

Pendulum Clock

Mechanical clock

The first mechanical alarm clock was invented by the American Levi Hutchins of Concord, New Hampshire, in 1787. However, the alarm bell on his clock could only go off at 4 o'clock in the morning (goodbye fat mornings).

In 1876, Seth E. Thomas patented a mechanical winding alarm clock that could be set at any time.

Mechanical Clock

Time Zone

Sir Sanford Fleming invented standard time in 1878. Standard time is the synchronization of clocks in a geographical area to a single standard time. It was born out of the need to facilitate weather forecasting and train travel. In the 20th century, geographical areas were evenly distributed across time zones.

Time zone Clock

Clock & Quartz Watch

Invented in 1927 by Warren Morrison, a Canadian-born telecommunications engineer, he was looking for reliable frequency standards at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Their operation is based on the integration of a quartz plate. When electrically stimulated, quartz, a mineral substance composed of silica atoms, oscillates at a specific frequency. A shock to the crystal creates mechanical vibrations, which in turn cause electrical charges. These vibrations, associated with a synchronous motor, generate the oscillation. On the other hand, their frequency remains stable only if the crystal retains its dimension. This dimension can vary due to temperature, which is why it is necessary to insulate it properly. But I refer you to the Quartz Watch.

Quartz Watch Clock

Battery Clock or Electric Clock

The electric clock was invented in the first half of the 19th century.

In 1820, the Frenchman André-Marie Ampère invented the electromagnet and laid the foundations for electromagnetism (the magnetic effects of electric current). This property is used in electric motors, loudspeakers, recording devices such as VCRs, tape recorders, etc.

In 1840, the Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain made the first electric clock. Energy is supplied by a battery that powers an electromagnet that makes a pendulum swing. He also imagined that a central clock could send electrical signals to synchronize many other clocks. This idea was put into practice by Louis-Clément Breguet in 1856, who installed a system in Lyon that could operate 76 dials housed in public lighting lanterns linked together by a network of electric wires. The master clock, powered by an electric battery, was connected to a regulator which sent an inverted current through the conductor every minute to ensure that all the dials displayed the same time.

Around 1900, electricity began to spread (establishment of electrical networks). The domestic use of electric clocks became possible. The first practical electric clocks were made in 1918 by Henry Ellis Warren, an American electrician. They work with a synchronous motor controlled by the stabilized frequency of the alternating electrical network. He succeeded in convincing electricians to offer time distribution as a service after the clocks' low (but constant) consumption became measurable. The low investment required to ensure high stability was largely compensated by the additional consumption caused by the multiplication of clocks.

In the 1950s, technical progress made it possible to develop electric watches. The development of quartz watches in the 1970s will condemn this technique.

Battery Electric Watch

Automatic Watch

For some, it is the Swiss Abraham Louis Perrelet who invented this device in 1777, for others it is Hubert Sarton in 1778 with a rotor winding. What is certain is that one of these two men forever marked the era of watches as we know them today. Man was thus able to have the time within reach wherever he was.

Automatic Watch

As you will have understood, finding out precisely how to tell the time has taken an enormous amount of time, years and eras. But this is essential in our daily lives, can you see yourself living without clocks or devices to tell the exact time? I don't really.

If you wish to acquire a Decorative Wall Clock, I invite you to take a walk on our site, we are the specialists of the Decorative Wall Clock in the World with more than 1000 different products.

The Master of Time.