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The History of the Clock

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"The History of the Clock"
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One of the most fundamental advances in human history is the ability to measure the passage of time accurately. A number of techniques are known to have existed in the ancient world. The sundial, for example, showed the changing time of day in relation to the shadow made by the sun on a dial. The major drawback being that the sundial could not be used in cloudy conditions or at night.

Other ancient techniques include the pouring of sand through an hourglass and the burning of incense and candles. Water clocks may have been used as far back as 4000BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans then added complex gearing systems to the water clocks to improve their accuracy.

The earliest mechanical clocks in Europe appeared in the 13th Century AD but may have appeared as far back as the first millennium AD in Asia. The true mechanical clock, one with an escapement mechanism for controlling the release of power probably arose in Europe around 1300AD (although the Chinese had got this far several hundred years earlier). At this time water power was being replaced by falling weights as a power source. They were used particularly by the religious establishment for the timing of services and duties.

By the 14th Century the four key elements were present that we see in (non-digital) clocks right up to the present day. The power source, in later years using a coiled spring rather than falling weights; the escapement; the gearing system; the indicators which could be dials with hands and perhaps ringing bells to notify when significant time periods have elapsed.

For the next few hundred years the story of the clock was about improving the timing accuracy through the use of new materials and better designs of the four key elements. Spring-driven clocks came along in the 15th Century whilst the pendulum clock was invented in 1657 by Christiaan Huygens. William Clement added the anchor escapement in 1670. In the 18th Century John Harrison famously solved the problem of determining longitude at sea by improving massively the accuracy of clocks during voyages by overcoming the pendulum problem caused by the rocking of the ship.

The first electric clock was invented in 1840 by Alexander Bain. In the 20th Century the advance of electronics led to the replacement of clockwork altogether. Methods of telling time in the clock involving tuning forks, quartz crystals, polycarbonate resonance and even the decay of radioactive elements all came int to use. The need for winding has been replaced by the need for batteries, the display of dials and hands has been replaced with a digital read-out, and the chiming sound has been replaced with a computerized beep.

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