Water clock

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A display of two outflow water clocks from the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. The top is an original from the late 5th century BC. The bottom is a reconstruction of a clay original. AGMA Clepsydre.jpg
A display of two outflow water clocks from the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. The top is an original from the late 5th century BC. The bottom is a reconstruction of a clay original.
Using a water clock for goldbeating a goldleaf in Mandalay (Myanmar).

A water clock or clepsydra (Greek κλεψύδρα from κλέπτεινkleptein, 'to steal'; ὕδωρhydor, 'water') is any timepiece by which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into (inflow type) or out from (outflow type) a vessel, and where the amount is then measured.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.


Water clocks are one of the oldest time-measuring instruments. [1] They were invented in ancient Egypt. 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. [2]

Babylon gles BC

Babylon was a key kingdom in ancient Mesopotamia from the 18th to 6th centuries BC. The name-giving capital city was built on the Euphrates river and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks, with steep embankments to contain the river's seasonal floods. Babylon was originally a small Akkadian town dating from the period of the Akkadian Empire c. 2300 BCE.

Egypt Country spanning North Africa and Southwest Asia

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country in the northeast corner of Africa, whose territory in the Sinai Peninsula extends beyond the continental boundary with Asia, as traditionally defined. Egypt is bordered by the Gaza Strip and Israel to the northeast, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south, Libya to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Across the Gulf of Aqaba lies Jordan, across the Red Sea lies Saudi Arabia, and across the Mediterranean lie Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, although none share a land border with Egypt.

India Country in South Asia

India, officially the Republic of India, is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

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.

Pendulum Mechanism for regulating the speed of clocks

A pendulum is a weight suspended from a pivot so that it can swing freely. When a pendulum is displaced sideways from its resting, equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position. When released, the restoring force acting on the pendulum's mass causes it to oscillate about the equilibrium position, swinging back and forth. The time for one complete cycle, a left swing and a right swing, is called the period. The period depends on the length of the pendulum and also to a slight degree on the amplitude, the width of the pendulum's swing.

Water wheel machine for converting falling or flowing water into useful power

A water wheel is a machine for converting the energy of flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, often in a watermill. A water wheel consists of a wheel, with a number of blades or buckets arranged on the outside rim forming the driving surface.

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 [ citation needed ].

The Greeks or Hellenes are an ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus, southern Albania, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, other countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world.

Escapement Mechanism for regulating the speed of clocks

An escapement is a mechanical linkage in mechanical watches and clocks that gives impulses to the timekeeping element and periodically releases the gear train to move forward, advancing the clock's hands. The impulse action transfers energy to the clock's timekeeping element to replace the energy lost to friction during its cycle and keep the timekeeper oscillating. The escapement is driven by force from a coiled spring or a suspended weight, transmitted through the timepiece's gear train. Each swing of the pendulum or balance wheel releases a tooth of the escapement's escape wheel, allowing the clock's gear train to advance or "escape" by a fixed amount. This regular periodic advancement moves the clock's hands forward at a steady rate. At the same time the tooth gives the timekeeping element a push, before another tooth catches on the escapement's pallet, returning the escapement to its "locked" state. The sudden stopping of the escapement's tooth is what generates the characteristic "ticking" sound heard in operating mechanical clocks and watches. The first mechanical escapement, the verge escapement, was invented in medieval Europe during the 13th century, and was the crucial innovation which lead to the development of the mechanical clock. The design of the escapement has a large effect on a timepiece's accuracy, and improvements in escapement design drove improvements in time measurement during the era of mechanical timekeeping from the 13th through the 19th century.

Automaton A self-operating machine

An automaton is a self-operating machine, or a machine or control mechanism designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations, or respond to predetermined instructions. Some automata, such as bellstrikers in mechanical clocks, are designed to give the illusion to the casual observer that they are operating under their own power.

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.

Sundial Device that tells the time of day by the apparent position of the Sun in the sky

A sundial is a device that tells the time of day when there is sunlight by the apparent position of the Sun in the sky. In the narrowest sense of the word, it consists of a flat plate and a gnomon, which casts a shadow onto the dial. As the Sun appears to move across the sky, the shadow aligns with different hour-lines, which are marked on the dial to indicate the time of day. The style is the time-telling edge of the gnomon, though a single point or nodus may be used. The gnomon casts a broad shadow; the shadow of the style shows the time. The gnomon may be a rod, wire, or elaborately decorated metal casting. The style must be parallel to the axis of the Earth's rotation for the sundial to be accurate throughout the year. The style's angle from horizontal is equal to the sundial's geographical latitude.

Pendulum clock Clock regulated by a pendulum

A pendulum clock is a clock that uses a pendulum, a swinging weight, as its timekeeping element. The advantage of a pendulum for timekeeping is that it is a harmonic oscillator: it swings back and forth in a precise time interval dependent on its length, and resists swinging at other rates. From its invention in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens until the 1930s, the pendulum clock was the world's most precise timekeeper, accounting for its widespread use. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries pendulum clocks in homes, factories, offices and railroad stations served as primary time standards for scheduling daily life, work shifts, and public transportation, and their greater accuracy allowed the faster pace of life which was necessary for the Industrial Revolution. The home pendulum clock was replaced by cheaper synchronous electric clocks in the 1930s and '40s, and they are now kept mostly for their decorative and antique value.

A water clock uses a flow of water to measure time. If viscosity is neglected, the physical principle required to study such clocks is Torricelli's law. There are two types of water clocks: inflow and outflow. In an outflow water clock, a container is filled with water, and the water is drained slowly and evenly out of the container. This container has markings that are used to show the passage of time. As the water leaves the container, an observer can see where the water is level with the lines and tell how much time has passed. An inflow water clock works in basically the same way, except instead of flowing out of the container, the water is filling up the marked container. As the container fills, the observer can see where the water meets the lines and tell how much time has passed.

Torricellis law

Torricelli's law, also known as Torricelli's theorem, is a theorem in fluid dynamics relating the speed of fluid flowing from an orifice to the height of fluid above the opening. The law states that the speed v of efflux of a fluid through a sharp-edged hole at the bottom of a tank filled to a depth h is the same as the speed that a body would acquire in falling freely from a height h, i.e. , where g is the acceleration due to gravity. This expression comes from equating the kinetic energy gained, , with the potential energy lost, mgh, and solving for v. The law was discovered by the Italian scientist Evangelista Torricelli, in 1643. It was later shown to be a particular case of Bernoulli's principle.

Regional development


Fragment of a basalt water-clock, with evaporation time markers on interior as dots on djed and was hieroglyphs. Late period, 30th Dynasty. From Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London Fragment of a basalt water-clock with evaporation time markers on interior as dots on djed and was hieroglyphs. Late period, 30th Dynasty. From Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London.jpg
Fragment of a basalt water-clock, with evaporation time markers on interior as dots on djed and was hieroglyphs. Late period, 30th Dynasty. From Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

The oldest water clock of which there is physical evidence dates to c. 1417–1379 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III where it was used in the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. [3] The oldest documentation of the water clock is the tomb inscription of the 16th century BC Egyptian court official Amenemhet, which identifies him as its inventor. [4] [5] These simple water clocks, which were of the outflow type, were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. There were twelve separate columns with consistently spaced markings on the inside to measure the passage of "hours" as the water level reached them. The columns were for each of the twelve months to allow for the variations of the seasonal hours. These clocks were used by priests to determine the time at night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the correct hour. [6] These clocks may have been used in daylight as well.


Clay tablet
Water clock tablet.jpg
Water clock calculations by Nabû-apla-iddina.
SizeH:8.2 cm (3.2 in)
W:11.8 cm (4.6 in)
D:2.5 cm (0.98 in)
Writing cuneiform, Akkadian
Present locationRoom 55, British Museum
Identification 29371

In Babylon, water clocks were of the outflow type and were cylindrical in shape. Use of the water clock as an aid to astronomical calculations dates back to the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000 – c. 1600 BC). [7] While there are no surviving water clocks from the Mesopotamian region, most evidence of their existence comes from writings on clay tablets. Two collections of tablets, for example, are the Enuma-Anu-Enlil (1600–1200 BC) and the MUL.APIN (7th century BC). [8] In these tablets, water clocks are used in reference to payment of the night and day watches (guards).

These clocks were unique, as they did not have an indicator such as hands (as are typically used today) or grooved notches (as were used in Egypt). Instead, these clocks measured time "by the weight of water flowing from" it. [9] The volume was measured in capacity units called qa. The weight, mana (the Greek unit for about one pound), is the weight of water in a water clock.

In Babylonian times, time was measured with temporal hours. So, as seasons changed, so did the length of a day. "To define the length of a 'night watch' at the summer solstice, one had to pour two mana of water into a cylindrical clepsydra; its emptying indicated the end of the watch. One-sixth of mana had to be added each succeeding half-month. At the equinox, three mana had to be emptied in order to correspond to one watch, and four mana was emptied for each watch of the winter solstitial night." [9]


N. Kameswara Rao suggested that pots excavated from Mohenjo daro may have been used as water clocks. They are tapered at the bottom, have a hole on the side, and are similar to the utensil used to perform abhishekam (pour holy water) on shivalingam. [10] N. Narahari Achar [11] and Subhash Kak [12] suggest that the use of the water clock in ancient India is mentioned in the Atharvaveda from the 2nd millennium BC. Ghati or Kapala (clepsydra or water clock) is referred to in Jyotisha Vedanga, where the amount of water that measures a nadika (24 minutes) is mentioned. A more developed form of the clepsydra is described in chapter xiii, 23 of the Suryasiddhanta. [13] At Nalanda, a Buddhist university, four hours a day and four hours at night were measured by a water clock, which consisted of a copper bowl holding two large floats in a larger bowl filled with water. The bowl was filled with water from a small hole at its bottom; it sank when completely filled and was marked by the beating of a drum at daytime. The amount of water added varied with the seasons and this clock was operated by the students of the university. [14] The description of a water clock in astrologer Varahimira's Pancasiddhantika (505)[ full citation needed ] adds further detail to the account given in the Suryasiddhanta. The description is given by mathematician Brahmagupta in his work Brahmasphutasiddhanta matches with that given in the Suryasiddhanta. Astronomer Lallacharya describes this instrument in detail. [15] In practice, the dimensions were determined by experiment.


The water-powered mechanism of Su Song's astronomical clock tower, featuring a clepsydra tank, waterwheel, escapement mechanism, and chain drive to power an armillary sphere and 113 striking clock jacks to sound the hours and to display informative plaques Clock Tower from Su Song's Book desmear.JPG
The water-powered mechanism of Su Song's astronomical clock tower, featuring a clepsydra tank, waterwheel, escapement mechanism, and chain drive to power an armillary sphere and 113 striking clock jacks to sound the hours and to display informative plaques

In ancient China, as well as throughout East Asia, water clocks were very important in the study of astronomy and astrology. The oldest written reference dates the use of the water-clock in China to the 6th century BC. [16] From about 200 BC onwards, the outflow clepsydra was replaced almost everywhere in China by the inflow type with an indicator-rod borne on a float. [16] The Han dynasty philosopher and politician Huan Tan (40 BC – AD 30), a Secretary at the Court in charge of clepsydrae, wrote that he had to compare clepsydrae with sundials because of how temperature and humidity affected their accuracy, demonstrating that the effects of evaporation, as well as of temperature on the speed at which water flows, were known at this time. [17] In 976, the Song dynasty military engineer and astronomer Zhang Sixun addressed the problem of the water in clepsydrae freezing in cold weather by using liquid mercury instead. [18] Again, instead of using water, the early Ming Dynasty engineer Zhan Xiyuan (c. 1360–1380) created a sand-driven wheel clock, improved upon by Zhou Shuxue (c. 1530–1558). [19]

The use of clepsydrae to drive mechanisms illustrating astronomical phenomena began with the Han Dynasty polymath Zhang Heng (78–139) in 117, who also employed a waterwheel. [20] Zhang Heng was the first in China to add an extra compensating tank between the reservoir and the inflow vessel, which solved the problem of the falling pressure head in the reservoir tank. [16] Zhang's ingenuity led to the creation by the Tang dynasty mathematician and engineer Yi Xing (683–727) and Liang Lingzan in 725 of a clock driven by a waterwheel linkwork escapement mechanism. [21] The same mechanism would be used by the Song dynasty polymath Su Song (1020–1101) in 1088 to power his astronomical clock tower, as well as a chain drive. [22] Su Song's clock tower, over 30 feet (9.1 m) 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 mannequins which rang bells or gongs, and held tablets indicating the hour or other special times of the day. In the 2000s, in Beijing's Drum Tower an outflow clepsydra is operational and displayed for tourists. It is connected to automata so that every quarter-hour a small brass statue of a man claps his cymbals. [23]


Ancient Persian clock Ancient water clock used in qanat of gonabad 2500 years ago.JPG
Ancient Persian clock
Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad Water clock zibad.JPG
Ancient Persian clock in Qanats of Gonabad Zibad

According to Callisthenes, the Persians were using water clocks in 328 BC to ensure a just and exact distribution of water from qanats to their shareholders for agricultural irrigation. The use of water clocks in Iran, especially in Zibad, dates back to 500 BC.[ citation needed ] Later they were also used to determine the exact holy days of pre-Islamic religions, such as the Nowruz , Chelah, or Yaldā – the shortest, longest, and equal-length days and nights of the years. The water clocks used in Iran were one of the most practical ancient tools for timing the yearly calendar. [24] [25] The water clock, or Fenjaan, was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for calculating the amount or the time that a farmer must take water from a qanat or well for irrigation, until it was replaced by more accurate current clocks. [26] [27] Persian water clocks were a practical and useful tool for the qanat's shareholders to calculate the length of time they could divert water to their farm. The qanat(Kariz) was the only water source for agriculture and irrigation so a just and fair water distribution was very important. Therefore, a very fair and clever old person was elected to be the manager of the water clock(MirAab), and at least two full-time managers were needed to control and observe the number of fenjaans and announce the exact time during the days and nights. [28]

The Fenjaan consisted of a large pot full of water and a bowl with a small hole in the center. When the bowl became full of water, it would sink into the pot, and the manager would empty the bowl and again put it on the top of the water in the pot. He would record the number of times the bowl sank by putting small stones into a jar. [28] The place where the clock was situated, and its managers, were collectively known as khaneh Fenjaan . Usually this would be the top floor of a public-house, with west- and east-facing windows to show the time of Sunset and Sunrise. There was also another time-keeping tool named a staryab or astrolabe, but it was mostly used for superstitious beliefs and was not practical for use as a farmers' calendar. The Zeebad Gonabad water clock was in use until 1965[ citation needed ] when it was substituted by modern clocks. [24]

Greco-Roman world

An early 19th-century illustration of Ctesibius's (285-222 BC) clepsydra from the 3rd century BC. The hour indicator ascends as water flows in. Also, a series of gears rotate a cylinder to correspond to the temporal hours. Clepsydra-Diagram-Fancy.jpeg
An early 19th-century illustration of Ctesibius's (285–222 BC) clepsydra from the 3rd century BC. The hour indicator ascends as water flows in. Also, a series of gears rotate a cylinder to correspond to the temporal hours.

The word "clepsydra" comes from the Greek meaning "water thief". [30] The Greeks considerably advanced the water clock by tackling the problem of the diminishing flow. They introduced several types of the inflow clepsydra, one of which included the earliest feedback control system. [31] Ctesibius invented an indicator system typical for later clocks such as the dial and pointer. [32] The Roman engineer Vitruvius described early alarm clocks, working with gongs or trumpets. [32] A commonly used water clock was the simple outflow clepsydra. This small earthenware vessel had a hole in its side near the base. In both Greek and Roman times, this type of clepsydra was used in courts for allocating periods of time to speakers. In important cases, such as when a person's life was at stake, it was filled completely, but for more minor cases, only partially. If proceedings were interrupted for any reason, such as to examine documents, the hole in the clepsydra was stopped with wax until the speaker was able to resume his pleading. [33]

Clepsydra springhouse of the Athenian acropolis

Just northeast of the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens there was a famous natural spring named Clepsydra. It is mentioned by Aristophanes in Lysistrata (lines 910–913) and other ancient literary sources. A fountain house was built on the site c. 470–460 BC; it was of simple rectangular construction with a draw-basin and paved court.

Clepsydrae for keeping time

In the 4th century BC, the clepsydra is known to have been used as a stop-watch for imposing a time limit on clients' visits in Athenian brothels. [34] Slightly later, in the early 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic physician Herophilos employed a portable clepsydra on his house visits in Alexandria for measuring his patients' pulse-beats. By comparing the rate by age group with empirically obtained data sets, he was able to determine the intensity of the disorder. [34]

Between 270 BC and AD 500, Hellenistic (Ctesibius, Hero of Alexandria, Archimedes) and Roman horologists and astronomers were developing more elaborate mechanized water clocks. The added complexity was aimed at regulating the flow and at providing fancier displays of the passage of time. For example, some water clocks rang bells and gongs, while others opened doors and windows to show figurines of people, or moved pointers, and dials. Some even displayed astrological models of the universe. The 3rd century BC engineer Philo of Byzantium referred in his works to water clocks already fitted with an escapement mechanism, the earliest known of its kind. [35]

The biggest achievement of the invention of clepsydrae during this time, however, was by Ctesibius with his incorporation of gears and a dial indicator to automatically show the time as the lengths of the days changed throughout the year, because of the temporal timekeeping used during his day. Also, a Greek astronomer, Andronicus of Cyrrhus, supervised the construction of his Horologion, known today as the Tower of the Winds, in the Athens marketplace (or agora) in the first half of the 1st century BC. This octagonal clocktower showed scholars and shoppers both sundials and mechanical hour indicators. It featured a 24-hour mechanized clepsydra and indicators for the eight winds from which the tower got its name, and it displayed the seasons of the year and astrological dates and periods.

Medieval Islamic world

Al-Jazari's elephant water clock (1206). Al-jazari elephant clock.png
Al-Jazari's elephant water clock (1206).

In the medieval Islamic world (632-1280), the use of water clocks has its roots from Archimedes during the rise of Alexandria in Egypt and continues on through Byzantium. The water clocks by the Arabic engineer Al-Jazari, however, are credited for going "well beyond anything" that had preceded them. In al-Jazari's 1206 treatise, he describes one of his water clocks, the elephant clock. The clock recorded the passage of temporal hours, which meant that the rate of flow had to be changed daily to match the uneven length of days throughout the year. To accomplish this, the clock had two tanks, the top tank was connected to the time indicating mechanisms and the bottom was connected to the flow control regulator. Basically, at daybreak, the tap was opened and water flowed from the top tank to the bottom tank via a float regulator that maintained a constant pressure in the receiving tank. [37]

Water-powered automatic castle clock of Al-Jazari, 12th century. Clock of al Jazari before 1206.jpg
Water-powered automatic castle clock of Al-Jazari, 12th century.

The most sophisticated water-powered astronomical clock was Al-Jazari's castle clock, considered by some to be an early example of a programmable analog computer, in 1206. [38] It was a complex device that was about 11 feet (3.4 m) high, and had multiple functions alongside timekeeping. It included a display of the zodiac and the solar and lunar orbits, and a pointer in the shape of the crescent moon which traveled across the top of a gateway, moved by a hidden cart and causing automatic doors to open, each revealing a mannequin, every hour. [39] [40] It was possible to re-program the length of day and night in order to account for the changing lengths of day and night throughout the year, and it also featured five musician automata who automatically play music when moved by levers operated by a hidden camshaft attached to a water wheel. [38] Other components of the castle clock included a main reservoir with a float, a float chamber and flow regulator, plate and valve trough, two pulleys, crescent disc displaying the zodiac, and two falcon automata dropping balls into vases. [41] [ unreliable source ]

The first water clocks to employ complex segmental and epicyclic gearing was invented earlier by the Arab engineer Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi in Islamic Iberia c. 1000. His water clocks were driven by water wheels, as was also the case for several Chinese water clocks in the 11th century. [42] Comparable water clocks were built in Damascus and Fez. The latter (Dar al-Magana) remains until today and its mechanism has been reconstructed. The first European clock to employ these complex gears was the astronomical clock created by Giovanni de Dondi in c. 1365. Like the Chinese, Arab engineers at the time also developed an escapement mechanism which they employed in some of their water clocks. The escapement mechanism was in the form of a constant-head system, while heavy floats were used as weights. [42]


An incomplete scaled-down model of Jang Yeong-sil's self-striking water clock Korean Waterclock.jpg
An incomplete scaled-down model of Jang Yeong-sil's self-striking water clock

In 1434 during the Choson (or Joseon) Dynasty, Chang Yongsil (or Jang Young Sil) (장영실 in Korean), Palace Guard and later Chief Court Engineer, constructed the Jagyeongnu (self-striking water clock or striking clepsydra) for King Sejong. What made the Jagyeongnu self-striking (or automatic) was the use of jack-work mechanisms, by which three wooden figures (jacks) struck objects to signal the time. This innovation no longer required the reliance of human workers, known as "rooster men", to constantly replenish it. By 1554, the water clock spread from Korea to Japan. Water clocks were used and improved upon throughout Asia well into the 15th century.

Modern designs

Bernard Gitton's Time-Flow clock, showing a time of 4:06 Modern water clock.JPG
Bernard Gitton's Time-Flow clock, showing a time of 4:06

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. His unique glass tube designs can be found in over 30 locations throughout the world, including one at NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam, Europa-Center's The Clock of Flowing Time in Berlin, Centre Commercial Milenis in Guadeloupe, the Giant Water Clock at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Abbotsford International Airport (formerly at Sevenoaks Shopping Centre) in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and the Shopping Iguatemi in São Paulo and Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Gitton's design relies on gravity powering multiple siphons in the same principle as the Pythagorean cup; for example, after the water level in the minute or hour display tubes is reached, an overflow tube starts to act as a siphon and thus empties the display tube. Actual timekeeping is done by a calibrated pendulum powered by a water stream piped from the clock's reservoir. The pendulum has a carefully constructed container attached to it; this measures the water that is then poured into the display system. This means that strictly speaking, these are not water clocks. The water is used to power the pendulum and to show the time in the display system. There are other modern designs of water clocks, including the Royal Gorge water clock in Colorado, the Woodgrove Mall in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and the Hornsby Water Clock in Sydney, Australia.

Temperature, water viscosity, and clock accuracy

When viscosity can be neglected, the outflow rate of the water is governed by Torricelli's law, or more generally, by Bernoulli's principle. Viscosity will dominate the outflow rate if the water flows out through a nozzle that is sufficiently long and thin, as given by the Hagen–Poiseuille equation. [43] Approximately, the flow rate is for such design inversely proportional to the viscosity, which depends on the temperature. Liquids generally become less viscous as the temperature increases. In the case of water, the viscosity varies by a factor of about seven between zero and 100 degrees Celsius. Thus, a water clock with such a nozzle would run about seven times faster at 100 °C than at 0 °C. Water is about 25 percent more viscous at 20 °C than at 30 °C, and a variation in temperature of one degree Celsius, in this "room temperature" range, produces a change of viscosity of about two percent. [44] Therefore, a water clock with such a nozzle that keeps good time at some given temperature would gain or lose about half an hour per day if it were one degree Celsius warmer or cooler. To make it keep time within one minute per day would require its temperature to be controlled within 130°C (about 117° Fahrenheit). There is no evidence that this was done in antiquity, so ancient water clocks with sufficiently thin and long nozzles (unlike the modern pendulum-controlled one described above) cannot have been reliably accurate by modern standards. Note, however, that while modern timepieces may not be reset for long periods, water clocks were likely reset every day, when refilled, based on a sundial, so the cumulative error would not have been great.

See also


  1. Turner 1984 , p. 1
  2. Cowan 1958 , p. 58
  3. Cotterell, Brian; Kamminga, Johan (1990). Mechanics of pre-industrial technology: An introduction to the mechanics of ancient and traditional material culture. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-42871-8. OCLC   18520966., pp. 59–61
  4. Cotterell & Kamminga 1990 , pp. 59–61
  5. Berlev, Oleg (1997). "Bureaucrats". In Donadoni, Sergio (ed.). The Egyptians. Trans. Bianchi, Robert et al. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 118. ISBN   0-226-15555-2.
  6. Cotterell & Kamminga 1990
  7. Pingree, David (1998). "Legacies in Astronomy and Celestial Omens". In Stephanie Dalley (ed.). The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN   0-19-814946-8.
  8. Evans, James (1998). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 15. ISBN   0-19-509539-1.
  9. 1 2 Neugebauer 1947 , pp. 39–40
  10. Rao, N. Kameswara (December 2005). "Aspects of prehistoric astronomy in India" (PDF). Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India. 33 (4): 499–511. Bibcode:2005BASI...33..499R . Retrieved 2007-05-11. It appears that two artifacts from Mohenjadaro and Harappa might correspond to these two instruments. Joshi and Parpola (1987) lists a few pots tapered at the bottom and having a hole on the side from the excavations at Mohenjadaro (Figure 3). A pot with a small hole to drain the water is very similar to clepsydras described by Ohashi to measure the time (similar to the utensil used over the lingum in Shiva temple for abhishekam).
  11. Achar, N. Narahari (December 1998). "On the meaning of AV XIX. 53.3: Measurement of Time?". Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. Retrieved 2007-05-11.[ unreliable source? ]
  12. Kak, Subhash (2003-02-17). "Babylonian and Indian Astronomy: Early Connections". History of Science, Philosophy & Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol., Part (A Golden Chain, G.C. Pande, Ed.), Pp., . 1 (4): 847–869. arXiv: physics/0301078 . Bibcode:2003physics...1078K.[ unreliable source? ]
  13. "A copper vessel (in the shape of the lower half of the water jar) which has a small hole in its bottom and being placed upon clean water in a basin sinks exactly 60 times in a day and at night." – chapter xiii, 23 of the Suryasiddhanta.
  14. Scharfe, Hartmut (2002). Education in Ancient India. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers. p. 171. ISBN   90-04-12556-6.
  15. "A copper vessel weighing 10 palas, 6 angulas in height and twice as much in breadth at the mouth—this vessel of the capacity of 60 palas of water and hemispherical in form is called a ghati." This copper vessel, which was bored with a needle and made of 3 1/8 masas of gold and 4 angulas long, gets filled in one nadika."[ full citation needed ]
  16. 1 2 3 Needham 2000 , p. 479
  17. Needham 1995 , pp. 321–322
  18. Needham 2000 , pp. 469–471
  19. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd. Pages 510–511.
  20. Needham 2000 , pps. 30, 532
  21. Needham 2000 , pps. 471, 490, 532
  22. Needham 2000 , p. 462
  23. Ellywa (1 August 2007). "Clepsydra in the Drum Tower, Beijing, China" via Wikimedia Commons.
  24. 1 2 "Conference of Qanat in Iran – water clock in Persia 1383". www.aftabir.com (in Persian).
  25. [ dead link ]
  26. "ساعت آبی پنگان در ایران بیش از ۲۴۰۰ سال کاربرد دارد. – پژوهشهای ایرانی". parssea.org.
  27. vista.ir. "قنات میراث فرهنگی و علمی ایرانیان".
  28. 1 2 "water clock in persia". amordadnews.com. Archived from the original on 2014-04-29.
  29. This engraving is taken from "Rees's Clocks, Watches, and Chronometers 1819–20. The design of the illustration was modified from Claude Perrault's illustrations in his 1684 translation of Vitruvius's Les Dix Livres d'Architecture (1st century BC), of which he describes Ctesibius's clepsydra in great length.
  30. Levy, Janey (2004). Keeping Time Through the Ages: The History of Tools Used to Measure Time. Rosen Classroom. p. 11. ISBN   9780823989171. The Greeks named the water clock 'clepsydra' (KLEP-suh-druh), which means 'water thief'.
  31. Goodenow, Orr & Ross (2007) , p. 7
  32. 1 2 John G. Landels: "Water-Clocks and Time Measurement in Classical Antiquity", "Endeavour", Vol. 3, No. 1 (1979), pp. 32–37 (35)
  33. Hill 1981 , p. 6
  34. 1 2 Landels, John G. (1979). "Water-Clocks and Time Measurement in Classical Antiquity". Endeavour. 3 (1): 33. doi:10.1016/0160-9327(79)90007-3.
  35. Lewis 2000 , pp. 356f.
  36. ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1974). The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Translated and annotated by Donald Routledge Hill. Dordrecht: D. Reidel. ISBN   969-8016-25-2.
  37. al-Hassan & Hill 1986 , pp. 57–59
  38. 1 2 "Ancient Discoveries, Episode 11: Ancient Robots". History Channel. Archived from the original on March 1, 2014. Retrieved 2008-09-06.
  39. Howard R. Turner (1997), Science in Medieval Islam: An Illustrated Introduction, p. 184. University of Texas Press, ISBN   0-292-78149-0.
  40. Routledge Hill, Donald, "Mechanical Engineering in the Medieval Near East", Scientific American, May 1991, pp. 64–69. (cf. Donald Routledge Hill, Mechanical Engineering)
  41. "two falcon automata dropping balls into vases – Google Search". www.google.com.my.
  42. 1 2 Hassan, Ahmad Y, Transfer Of Islamic Technology To The West, Part II: Transmission Of Islamic Engineering, History of Science and Technology in Islam
  43. Goodenow, Orr & Ross (2007) , p. 6
  44. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, page F-36


Overview of water clocks and other time instruments

Arabic & Islamic water clocks

  • Hill, Donald Routledge, ed. (1976). Archimedes' On the Construction of Water-Clocks. Paris: Turner & Devereux.
  • Hill, D.R. (1981). "Arabic Water–Clocks". Syria: University of Aleppo.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • al-Hassan, Ahmad Y.; Hill, Donald R. (1986). Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-26333-6. OCLC   13332728.
  • Hill, Donald Routledge (1998). Studies in Medieval Islamic Technology: From Philo to Al-Jazari - from Alexandria to Diyar Bakr. Collected Studies Series 555. Aldershot, England: Ashgate. ISBN   978-0860786061.
  • King, David A. (1990). "'Mikat', Astronomical Timekeeping". The Encyclopaedia of Islam. 7. Brill. (Reprinted in King, David A (1993). "Chapter V". Astronomy in the Service of Islam Variorum.)

Babylonian water clocks

Chinese water clocks

Egyptian water clocks

  • Clagett, Marshall (1995). Ancient Egyptian Science. Volume II: Calendars, Clocks, and Astronomy. pp. 457–462. ISBN   0-87169-214-7.
  • Cotterell, B.; Dickson, F.P.; Kamminga, J. (1986). "Ancient Egyptian Water-clocks: A Reappraisal". Journal of Archaeological Science. 13: 31–50. doi:10.1016/0305-4403(86)90025-7.
  • Cotterell, Brian; Kamminga, Johan (1990). Mechanics of pre-industrial technology. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fermor, John (1997). "Timing the Sun in Egypt and Mesopotamia". Vistas in Astronomy. 41 (1): 157–167. Bibcode:1997VA.....41..157F. doi:10.1016/S0083-6656(96)00069-4.
  • Neugebauer, Otto; Parker, Richard A. (1969). Egyptian Astronomical Texts. III: Decans, Planets, Constellations, and Zodiacs. Providence, RI: Brown University Press/Lund Humphries.
  • Pogo, Alexander (1936). "Egyptian water clocks". Isis. 25 (2): 403–425. doi:10.1086/347090. (Reprinted in O. Mayr, ed. (1976). Philosophers and Machines. Science History Publications. ISSN   0021-1753.)
  • Sloley, R.W. (1924). "Ancient Clepsydrae". Ancient Egypt: 43–50.
  • Sloley, R.W. (1931). "Primitive methods of measuring time". JEA. 17: 174–176.

European water clocks

  • Bedini, S.A. (1962). "The Compartmented Cylindrical Clepsydra". Technology and Culture. 3 (2): 115–141. doi:10.2307/3101437. ISSN   0040-165X. JSTOR   3101437.
  • Drover, C.B. (1954). "A Medieval Monastic Water Clock". Antiquarian Horology. I (5): 54–58.
  • Hill, Donald Routledge (1996). A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times. La Salle, IL: Open Court. ISBN   0-415-15291-7.
  • Hill, D.R (1994). "The Toledo Water-Clocks of c.1075". History of Technology. 16: 62–71.
  • Scattergood, John. (October 2003). "Writing the clock: the reconstruction of time in the late Middle Ages". European Review. 11 (4): 453–474. doi:10.1017/S1062798703000425.

Greek and Alexandrian water clocks

  • Hill, Donald Routledge, ed. (1976). Archimedes' On the Construction of Water-Clocks. Paris: Turner & Devereux.
  • Lepschy, Antonio M. (February 1992). "Feedback Control in Ancient Water and Mechanical Clocks". IEEE Transactions on Education. 35 (1): 3–10. Bibcode:1992ITEdu..35....3L. doi:10.1109/13.123411.
  • Lewis, Michael (2000). "Theoretical Hydraulics, Automata, and Water Clocks". In Wikander, Örjan (ed.). Handbook of Ancient Water Technology. Technology and Change in History. 2. Leiden. pp. 343–369 (356f.). ISBN   90-04-11123-9.
  • Noble, J.V.; de Solla Price, D. J. (1968). "The Water clock in the Tower of the Winds". American Journal of Archaeology. 72 (4): 345–355. doi:10.2307/503828. JSTOR   503828.
  • The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria. Translated by Woodcroft, Bennet. London: Taylor Walton and Maberly. 1851. Bibcode:1851phal.book.....W.
  • Vitruvius, P. (1960). The Ten Books on Architecture. Translated by Morgan, M.H. New York: Dover Publications.

Indian water clocks

  • Achar, N (1998). "On the Vedic origin of the ancient mathematical astronomy of India". Journal of Studies on Ancient India. 1: 95–108.
  • Fleet, J. F. (1915). "The ancient Indian water clock". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society: 213–230.
  • Kumar, Narendra (2004). Science in Ancient India. ISBN   81-261-2056-8.
  • Pingree, D. (1973). "The Mesopotamian origin of early Indian mathematical astronomy". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 4: 1–12. Bibcode:1973JHA.....4....1P. doi:10.1177/002182867300400102.
  • Pingree, D. (1976). "The recovery of early Greek astronomy from India". Journal for the History of Astronomy. 7 (2): 109–123. Bibcode:1976JHA.....7..109P. doi:10.1177/002182867600700202.

Korean water clocks

  • Hong, Sungook (July 1998). "Book Review: Korean Water-Clocks: "Chagyongnu", the Striking Clepsydra, and the History of Control and Instrumentation Engineering". Technology and Culture. 39 (3): 553–555.
  • Nam, Moon-Hyon (1990). "Chagyongnu: The Automatic Striking Water clock". Korea Journal. 30 (7): 9–21.
  • Nam, Moon-Hyon; Jeon, San-Woon (October 6–11, 1993). Timekeeping Systems of Early Choson Dynasty. First International Conference on Oriental Astronomy, From Guo Shoujing to King Sejong, Seoul. Seoul: Yonsei University Press (published 1997). pp. 305–324.
  • Needham, Joseph; Major, John S.; Lu, Gwei-Djen (1986). Hall of Heavenly Records: Korean Astronomical Instruments and Clocks, 1380–1780. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-30368-0.
  • From the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty:
    • Hyeonjong Shillock (Veritable Records of King Hyeonjong), 1669
    • Jungjong Shillok (Veritable Records of King Jungjong), 1536.
    • Sejong Shillock (Veritable Records of King Sejong), Chapter. 65, AD 1434 and Chapter. 80, AD 1438.

Mesopotamian water clocks

  • Brown, David R.; Fermor, John; Walker, Christopher B.F. (1999–2000). "The Water Clock in Mesopotamia". Archiv für Orientforschung (46/47).CS1 maint: date format (link)
  • Chadwick, R. (1984). "The Origins of Astronomy and Astrology in Mesopotamia". Archaeoastronomy. BULL. CTR ARCH. 7 (1–4): 89. Bibcode:1984Arch....7...89C.
  • Fermor, John (1997). "Timing the Sun in Egypt and Mesopotamia". Vistas in Astronomy. 41 (1): 157–167. Bibcode:1997VA.....41..157F. doi:10.1016/S0083-6656(96)00069-4.
  • Walker, Christopher; Britton, John (1996). "Astronomy and Astrology in Mesopotamia". BMP: 42–67.

Russian ancient water clocks

Present-day water clocks

  • Gitton, Bernard (June 1989). ""Time, like an everflowing stream." Trans. Mlle. Annie Chadeyron. Ed. Anthony Randall". Horological Journal. 131 (12): 18–20.
  • Taylor, Robert (March 15, 2006). "Taiwan's Biggest Cuckoo Clock?: Recreating an Astronomical Timepiece". Sinorama Magazine.
  • Xuan, Gao (August 18–21, 2003). Principle Research and Reconstruction Experiment of the Astronomical Clock Tower in Ancient China. 11th World Congress in Mechanism and machine Science. Tianjin, China.

Non-English resources

  • Bilfinger, Gustav (1888). Die babylonische Doppelstunde: Eine chronologische Untersuchung (in German). Stuttgart: Wildt.
  • Borchardt, Ludwig (1920). Die Altägyptische Zeitmessung[Old Egyptian time measurement] (in German). Berlin: Leipzig.
  • Daressy, G. (1915). "Deux clepsydres antiques". BIE (in French). 5 (9): 5–16.
  • Ginzel, Friedrich Karl (1920). "Die Wassermessungen der Babylonier und das Sexagesimalsystem". Klio: Beiträge zur alten Geschichte (in German). 16: 234–241.
  • Hahn, Young-Ho; Nam, Moon-Hyon (1997). "Reconstruction of the Armillary Spheres of Mid-Chosun: The Armillary Clocks of Yi Minchol". Hanguk Kwahaksa Hakhoeji (Journal of the Korean History of Science Society) (in Korean). 19 (1): 3–19.
  • Hahn, Young-Ho (2000). "Astronomical Clocks of Chosun Dynasty: King Sejong's Heumgyonggaknu". Kisulgwa Yoksa (Journal of the Korean Society for the History of Technology and Industry) (in Korean). 1 (1): 99–140.
  • Nam, Moon-Hyon (1995). Korean Water Clocks: Jagyongnu, The Striking Clepsydra and The History of Control and Instrumentation Engineering (in Korean). Seoul: Konkuk University Press.
  • Nam, Moon-Hyon (1998). "On the BORUGAKGI of Kim Don—Principles and Structures of JAYEONGNU". Hanguksa Yeongu (Studies on Korean History) (in Korean). 101: 75–114.
  • Nam, Moon-Hyon (2002). "Jang Yeong-Shil and Jagyeongnu – Reconstruction of Time Measuring History of Choseon Period. Seoul National University Press" (in Korean).Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • Planchon. "L'Heure Par Les Clepsydres". La Nature (in French): 55–59.
  • Thureau-Dangin, François (1932). "La clepsydre chez les Babyloniens (Notes assyriologiques LXIX)". Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale (in French). 29: 133–136.
  • Thureau-Dangin, François (1933). "Clepsydre babylonienne et clepsydre égyptienne". Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale (in French). 30: 51–52.
  • Thureau-Dangin, François (1937). "Le clepsydre babylonienne". Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale (in French). 34: 144.

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