Water clocks

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Water clocks, along with sundials, are likely to be the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick.

Where and when they were first invented is not known, and given their great antiquity it may never be.

The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and in Egypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, claim that water clocks appeared in China as early as 4000 BC.

Some modern timepieces are called “water clocks” but work differently from the ancient ones. Their timekeeping is governed by a pendulum, but they use water for other purposes, such as providing the power needed to drive the clock by using a water wheel or something similar, or by having water in their displays.

The Greeks and Romans advanced water clock design to include the inflow clepsydra with an early feedback system, gearing, and escapement mechanism, which were connected to fanciful automata and resulted in improved accuracy.

Further advances were made in Byzantium, Syria and Mesopotamia, where increasingly accurate water clocks incorporated complex segmental and epicyclic gearing, water wheels, and programmability, advances which eventually made their way to Europe.

Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks, incorporating gears, escapement mechanisms, and water wheels, passing their ideas on to Korea and Japan.

Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial.

While never reaching a level of accuracy comparable to today’s standards of timekeeping, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by more accurate pendulum clocks in 17th-century Europe.

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