A Brief History of Clocks: From Thales to Ptolemy

Essay by speedegril May 2005

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The clock is one of the most influential discoveries in the history of western science. The division of time into regular, predictable units is fundamental to the operation of society. Even in ancient times, humanity recognized the necessity of an orderly system of chronology. Hesiod, writing in the 8th century BC., used celestial bodies to indicate agricultural cycles: "When the Pleiads, Atlas' daughters, start to rise begin your harvest; plough when they go down" ( Hesiod 71). Later Greek scientists, such as Archimedes, developed complicated models of the heavens-celestial spheres-that illustrated the "wandering" of the sun, the moon, and the planets against the fixed position of the stars. Shortly after Archimedes, Ctesibus created the Clepsydra in the 2nd century BC. A more elaborate version of the common water clock, the Clepsydra was quite popular in ancient Greece. However, the development of stereography by Hipparchos in 150 BC. radically altered physical representations of the heavens.

By integrating stereography with the Clepsydra and the celestial sphere, humanity was capable of creating more practical and accurate devices for measuring time-the anaphoric clock and the astrolabe. Although Ptolemy was familiar with both the anaphoric clock and the astrolabe, I believe that the development of the anaphoric clock preceded the development of the astrolabe.

The earliest example, in western culture, of a celestial sphere is attributed to the presocratic philosopher Thales. Unfortunately, little is known about Thales' sphere beyond Cicero's description in the De re publica:

For Gallus told us that the other kind of celestial globe, which was solid and contained no hollow space, was a very early invention, the first one of that kind having been constructed by Thales of Mileus, and later marked by Eudoxus with the constellations and stars which are fixed in the sky. (Price 56)

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