7 Weird Facts About the History of Clocks




The first mechanical clock that used a balance wheel was invented around the start of the 14th century in Europe, and was the standard for timekeeping devices until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. Humans have taken the invention of time and run with it, meaning that we’ve thought of a lot of weird and wacky things to do with the device. Read on to find out 7 little known facts about clocks.

  1. Before alarm clocks were more economically accessible to the average worker (not to mention reliable), a profession in Britain and Ireland was entirely responsible for rousing the sleeping laborer during the Industrial Revolution known as the “knocker-up.” They would go around with a baton or short, heavy sticks to bang on their client’s doors and used long sticks of bamboo to reach windows on higher floors for those living in those upper floor apartments. Some even used a pea-shooter.

    knocker-up-peas.jpg
    The price of this service? Just a few pence a week (still less than a dollar in today’s worth).

  2. Big Ben is the name of the largest of the five bells that hang in the iconic clock in London, and not actually the name of the clock itself. The correct name for the tower is the Elizabeth Tower, which was renamed in 2012 to honor Queen Elizabeth during her Diamond Jubilee year (60th anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II). The tower itself is 158 years old as of 2017. The architect who decided to build the clock, Charles Barry, assigned Augustus Pugin, an English architect, to help design the clock tower. It is said that the project drove Pugin to madness and his eventual death.

    Fun fact: Pennies are used to adjust the time in the Elizabeth Tower clock. The mass of a single penny can change the pendulum’s center of mass and alter the time by 0.4s per day.

  3. In the USA, time zones (the ones we use today) were first established by the railroad industry during 1883. Before that, every town had its own time based on the sunrise and a central clock, which meant that there were more than 300 local sun times to choose from. This made scheduling trains nearly impossible because it confused passengers and made coordinating train schedules extremely difficult. Thus, a standardized time was needed. In 1884, the International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C. established the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian and the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the world’s time standard. The US time-zone system grew from this, which means all zones refer back to the GMT on the prime meridian.


  4. An effect called “Chronostasis” occurs when a person stares at a clock and the second hand appears to freeze. This is a type of temporal illusion in which a task or event appears to be extended in time. When looking at a clock, it is called the “stopped-clock illustion,” but can occur in auditory and tactile domains as well—for instance, if you listen to a ringing tone through a telephone, while repetitively switching the receiver from one ear to the other, it causes the caller to overestimate the time difference between the rings.


  5. The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, created a clock so accurate that it is not expected to gain or lose a second in more than 100 million years. The clock took over four years to test and build, and it is ten times more accurate than its predecessor, the NIST-7, an atomic clock used from 1993 to 1999. This clock is used as the United States’ primary time and frequency standard.


  6. A screening tool for Alzheimers and other types of dementia is to ask patients to draw the face of a clock. It is often used in combination with other screening tests, but even by itself, is considered to be a helpful insight into a person’s cognitive ability.  The clinician gives a person a pre-drawn circle and asks him/her to draw the numbers on the clock. Then the patient is asked to draw the hands to show a specific time.  The most frequent time requested? 10 minutes after 11. 


  7. In order to be precise with the irregularities in the Earth’s rotation, clocks will sometimes strike 23:59:60 to stay in sync with the day’s real duration, which essentially creates a minute with 61 seconds. This is known as a “leap second” and since it was implemented in 1972, 27 leap seconds have been inserted, the most recent on December 31, 2016 at 23:59:60. The reason is that the Earth’s rotation has slowed down, meaning that one mean solar day is now slightly longer by approximately 0.001 seconds in a 24-hour period.


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