September 3, 2010
10 Early Firsts in Timekeeping Devices
10. Sundials and Obelisks
Sundials have their origin in shadow clocks, which were the first devices used for measuring the parts of a day.The oldest known shadow clock is from Egypt, and was made from green schist Ancient Egyptian obelisks, constructed about 3500 BC, are also among the earliest shadow clocks. Egyptian shadow clocks divided daytime into 10 parts, with an additional four “twilight hours”—two in the morning, and two in the evening. One type of shadow clock consisted of a long stem with five variable marks and an elevated crossbar which cast a shadow over those marks. It was positioned eastward in the morning, and was turned west at noon. Obelisks functioned in much the same manner: the shadow cast on the markers around it allowed the Egyptians to calculate the time. The obelisk also indicated whether it was morning or afternoon, as well as the summer and winter solstices.
An hourglass (sandglass, sand timer, sand clock, egg timer) measures the passage of a few minutes or an hour of time. It has two connected vertical glass bulbs allowing a regulated trickle of material from the top to the bottom. Once the top bulb is empty, it can be inverted to begin timing again. The name hourglass comes from historically common hour timing. Factors affecting the time measured include the amount of sand, the bulb size, the neck width, and the sand quality. Alternatives to sand are powdered eggshell and powdered marble. (Sources disagree on the best material.) Modernly, hourglasses are ornamental or used when an approximate measure suffices, as in egg timers for cooking or for board games. The earliest hourglass appears in the 1338 fresco Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
A water clock or clepsydra is a timepiece in which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into (inflow type) or out from (outflow type) a vessel where the amount is then measured. 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. Only a few modern water clocks exist today. In 1979, French scientist Bernard Gitton began creating his Time-Flow Clocks, which are a modern-day approach to the historical version.
7. Candle Clock
A candle clock is a thin candle with consistently spaced markings (usually with numbers), that when burned, indicate the passage of periods of time. While no longer used today, candle clocks provided an effective way to tell time indoors, at night, or on a cloudy day. A candle clock could be easily transformed into a timer by sticking a heavy nail into the candle at the mark indicating the desired interval. When the wax surrounding the nail melts, the nal clatters onto a plate below. It is unknown where and when candle clocks were first used. The earliest reference to their use occurs in a Chinese poem by You Jiangu (520 AD). Here, the graduated candle supplied a means of determining time at night. Similar candles were used in Japan until the early 10th century.
6. Incense Clock
In addition to water, mechanical, and candle clocks, incense clocks were used in the Far East, and were fashioned in several different forms. Incense clocks were first used in China around the 6th century; in Japan, one still exists in the Sh?s?in. Several types of incense clock have been found, the most common forms include the incense stick and incense seal. An incense stick clock was an incense stick with calibrations; most were elaborate, sometimes having threads, with weights attached, at even intervals. The weights would drop onto a platter or gong below, signifying that a certain amount of time had elapsed. Some incense clocks were held in elegant trays; open-bottomed trays were also used, to allow the weights to be used together with the decorative tray. Sticks of incense with different scents were also used, so that the hours were marked by a change in fragrance. The incense sticks could be straight or spiraled; the spiraled ones were longer, and were therefore intended for long periods of use, and often hung from the roofs of homes and temples.
5. Astronomical Clocks
During the 11th century in the Song Dynasty, the Chinese astronomer, horologist and mechanical engineer Su Song created a water-driven astronomical clock for his clock tower of Kaifeng City. It incorporated an escapement mechanism as well as the earliest known endless power-transmitting chain drive, which drove the armillary sphere. Contemporary Muslim astronomers also constructed a variety of highly accurate astronomical clocks for use in their mosques and observatories, such as the water-powered astronomical clock by Al-Jazari in 1206, and the astrolabic clock by Ibn al-Shatir in the early 14th century. The most sophisticated timekeeping astrolabes were the geared astrolabe mechanisms designed by Ab? Rayh?n B?r?n? in the 11th century and by Muhammad ibn Abi Bakr in the 13th century. These devices functioned as timekeeping devices and also as calenders.
4. Verge Escapement
The verge (or crown wheel) escapement is the earliest known type of mechanical escapement, the mechanism in a mechanical clock that controls its rate by advancing the gear train at regular intervals or ‘ticks’. Its origin is unknown. Verge escapements were used from the 14th century until about 1800 in clocks and pocketwatches. Its invention is important in the history of technology, because it made possible the development of all-mechanical clocks. This caused a shift from measuring time by continuous processes, such as the flow of liquid in water clocks, to repetitive, oscillatory processes, such as the swing of pendulums, which had the potential to be more accurate. Oscillating timekeepers are at the heart of every clock today.
3. The Clockmakers
The first professional clockmakers came from the guilds of locksmiths and jewellers. Clockmaking developed from a specialized craft into a mass production industry over many years. Paris and Blois were the early centers of clockmaking in France. French clockmakers such as Julien Le Roy, clockmaker of Versailles, were leaders in case design and ornamental clocks. Le Roy belonged to the fifth generation of a family of clockmakers, and was described by his contemporaries as “the most skillful clockmaker in France, possibly in Europe”. He invented a special repeating mechanism which improved the precision of clocks and watches, a face that could be opened to view the inside clockwork, and made or supervised over 3,500 watches. The competition and scientific rivalry resulting from his discoveries further encouraged researchers to seek new methods of measuring time more accurately. In Germany, Nuremberg and Augsburg were the early clockmaking centers, and the Black Forest came to specialize in wooden cuckoo clocks. n 1904, Alberto Santos-Dumont, an early aviator, asked his friend, a French watchmaker called Louis Cartier, to design a watch that could be useful during his flights. The wristwatch had already been invented by Patek Philippe, in 1868, but only as a “lady’s bracelet watch”, intended as jewelry. As pocket watches were unsuitable, Louis Cartier created the Santos wristwatch, the first man’s wristwatch and the first designed for practical use.
2. Quartz Oscillators
A crystal oscillator is an electronic circuit that uses the mechanical resonance of a vibrating crystal of piezoelectric material to create an electrical signal with a very precise frequency. This frequency is commonly used to keep track of time (as in quartz wristwatches), to provide a stable clock signal for digital integrated circuits. Piezoelectricity was discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880. Paul Langevin first investigated quartz resonators for use in sonar during World War I. The first crystal-controlled oscillator, using a crystal of Rochelle salt, was built in 1917 and patented in 1918 by Alexander M. Nicholson at Bell Telephone Laboratories, although his priority was disputed by Walter Guyton Cady. Cady built the first quartz crystal oscillator in 1921.
1. Atomic Clocks
Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices known to date. Accurate to within a few seconds over many thousands of years, they are used to calibrate other clocks and timekeeping instruments. The first atomic clock, invented in 1949, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution. It was based on the absorption line in the ammonia molecule, but most are now based on the spin property of the cesium atom. The idea of using atomic transitions to measure time was first suggested in 1879. The practical method for doing this became magnetic resonance, developed in the 1930s. In 1945, Rabi first publicly suggested that atomic beam magnetic resonance might be used as the basis of a clock and finally it came in 1949.
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