Resource 2: Water clocks – ways of measuring time throughout history

Background information / subject knowledge for teacher

Water clocks were among the earliest timekeepers that didn't depend on the observation of celestial bodies. One of the oldest was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I, buried around 1500 BCE. Later named clepsydras (‘water thieves’) by the Greeks, who began using them about 325 BCE, these were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. Other clepsydras were cylindrical or bowl-shaped containers designed to slowly fill with water coming in at a constant rate. Markings on the inside surfaces measured the passage of ‘hours’ as the water level reached them. These clocks were used to determine hours at night, but may have been used in daylight as well. Another version consisted of a metal bowl with a hole in the bottom; when placed in a container of water the bowl would fill and sink in a certain time. These were still in use in North Africa in the 20th century.

More elaborate and impressive mechanised water clocks were developed between 100 BCE and 500 CE by Greek and Roman horologists and astronomers. The added complexity was aimed at making the flow more constant by regulating the pressure, and at providing fancier displays of the passage of time. Some water clocks rang bells and gongs; others opened doors and windows to show little figures of people, or moved pointers, dials and astrological models of the universe. In the Far East, mechanised astronomical/astrological clock making developed from 200 to 1300 CE. Third-century Chinese clepsydras drove various mechanisms that illustrated astronomical phenomena. One of the most elaborate clock towers was built by Su Sung and his associates in 1088 CE. Su Sung’s mechanism incorporated a water-driven escapement invented about 725 CE. The Su Sung clock tower, over 30 feet tall, possessed a bronze power-driven armillary sphere for observations, an automatically rotating celestial globe, and five front panels with doors that permitted the viewing of changing manikins which rang bells or gongs, and held tablets indicating the hour or other special times of the day. Since the rate of flow of water is very difficult to control accurately, a clock based on that flow could never achieve excellent accuracy. People were naturally led to other approaches.

Original source: [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Accessed 2008)

In Ctesibius's clepsydra from the 3rd century BC, the human-shaped hour pointer ascends as water flows in. Outflow drives a series of gears that rotate a cylinder bearing hour lengths appropriate for each day's date.

Resource 1: Ways of measuring time long ago

Resource 3: Sundials