What Timers Were Used By Our Ancestors Across The Ages?

Perhaps this is not our standard blog entry, but it still fits into the category of time (trackers? well, in a way, yes.) It is quite challenging to write mostly about time tracking devices, applications, and features that each of them can offer to a user. We imagine that reading this stuff can also exhaust even the most passionate tech-savvy.

Thus, we came up with an idea to dedicate at least one day of the week to posts covering the topics about various time-related tidbits. Our highly-qualified team of researchers (meaning mostly the author) is going to browse the depths of the Internet to bring you the treasure of knowledge. Knowledge about the ancient civilizations and their methods to deal with the problems of time management -.^ Today we present to you some interesting facts about ancient civilizations (but also individuals) and their methods to monitor the passage of time.

After the technological jump that humanity did during the last two centuries, (oh, it was a huge step, a “giant leap for mankind” if we can paraphrase the words of Mr. Armstrong, the famous American astronaut), we no longer have to worry about monitoring time.

That is because everything’s been digitized. We do not have to rely on the movement of the stars or any other natural method that helped our ancestors to keep track of the passing time. We have devices for that – from a standard clock that we check once a while, to computers that can provide us with the information about the exact time in every place of the world. We even learned how the gravity could influence the flow of time – for example astronauts who were orbiting around the earth for six months, arrive at our planet about 0.007second younger than people, who never left the earth  – but that is perhaps the topic for another post =]

In this one (we are sure that you managed to figure it out already, the title clearly reveals our intentions) we will present some ingenious devices that our ancestors created, to at least bend this unbreakable will of time, and use it for their purposes. Check them out and try to imagine how life was when we weren’t able to rely on the watch. The order is chronological.

We are sure that the Great Pyramid of Giza could have been finished faster if the supervisors had a tool for tracking the worker’s time. Luckily, we have such tool to boost the team’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Water Clock

You probably have an idea what this is =] The time in the water clock is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into or out of the vessel. The researchers are not able to determine where or when these tools were created. It is only known that along with hourglasses, these instruments are likely to be the oldest timers known to mankind. Their simplest form is dated around 16th century BCE.

The problem with water clocks was that they weren’t very relevant. That is because the laws of gravity were working, and the less water was in the bowl, the slower it flowed, misleading those, who were checking the time on the device. Many centuries later a Chinese inventor, Zhang Sixun, found the solution to this problem – instead of water, he used mercury.



Most of us know very well how does an Obelisk look like. However, many of us never gave its purpose a second thought. We tend to think that was placed next to pyramids and sphinxes just for the looks of it.  The truth is much different.

The ancient Egyptians realized very quickly that they could use the shadows that Sun created, to track its movement. And with the movement of the Sun “under control,” they were able to reasonably determine what time it was.

Age? The oldest discovered Obelisk from Assyria, which reconstructed top can be found in the British Museum, is dating as far as the 11th century BC.



Which is translated into English as an “instrument of knowing” was a pretty peculiar device that ancient Egyptians used for timekeeping. Merkhet could track the alignment of stars. It was a horizontal bar, carved from bone or wood, with a line attached to it. Two Merkhets were needed to read the time. One had to be aligned with Polaris, the North Pole star. Egyptians were observing the certain stars, and once they aligned with Merkhets, they were able to determine the time.

A few pieces excavated by archeologists can be found in the Science Museum of London. They date back to 600BC, but it’s possible that they were much older.


Automaton Clock

Each one of us knows the typical cuckoo clock. It is a simple form of the automaton clock – a clock featuring automatons (mechanical dolls set in motion by the machinery.) They originated in the 1st century BC – the first known data about such clock concerns the one created by Vitruvius, the Roman engineer (he managed to set alarm clocks in the form of gongs and trumpets.) The largest animated clock can be found in Tokyo, on the headquarters of Nippon Television.


Incense Clock

Originating in China, translated directly from Chinese it means “fragrance clock.” It appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and gained popularity even in the neighboring countries.  The construction of the clock was meant to hold the specially manufactured incense sticks, which, when ignited, could be used to measure minutes, hours, and even days. Time was measured basing on the length of the combustion.


Su Song’s Clock

This is a unique one, but we believe it deserves to be mentioned, as it was a masterpiece, only one of a kind. Su Song was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, medical doctor, pharmacologist, and this is just the half of his talents.

The clock he engineered was water-powered, but it was far from the simple devices described above. It could tell the time of day, date, month, and a set of other things. This clock, which by many is considered the greatest mechanical achievement of the Middle Ages, was quickly destroyed by the Tatars, as they weren’t able to get it running.


Elephant Clock

Designed (around 1170) by the famous engineer from the Middle East, Al-Jazari, the elephant clock was a weight-powered water clock in the shape of an Asian elephant. It is equipped with an automaton, who strikes the cymbal at a certain time. The innovative feature of this clock was the ability to record the passage of temporal hours (they vary depending on the season.)

It is also one of the most well-known examples of medieval multiculturalism, as Al-Jazari himself wrote on the contraption: “The elephant represents the Indian and African cultures, the two dragons represents ancient Chinese culture, the phoenix represents Persian culture, the water work represents ancient Greek culture, and the turban represents Islamic culture.” A full-sized replica of the elephant stands in a shopping mall in Dubai.


Al-Jazari was also the inventor of one of the first Astronomical Clocks (Su Song was first) that were monitoring the movement of stars and planets. The modern astronomy originated from them. However, there’s so much to write about them, that maybe we will do this in the next article =] We hope that you enjoyed this one! Appreciate your digital watches!

What Timers Were Used By Our Ancestors Across The Ages?

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