An Account Of How We Began To Tell Time In the Clockwise Manner

Pretty much everyone knows that if you are asked to pass something clockwise around a table, you hand it to the person on your left because that is the same direction that the hands of a clock move. But what you may not know is that this standard direction is a function not only of timekeeping, but also of the Earth’s rotation. 

As far back as 3,500 BC when the ancient Egyptians, and later the Babylonians created the first shadow clocks, the measurement of time moved in a clockwise direction.  When mechanical clocks were first introduced in Europe in the 14th century, their inventors were quite familiar with sundials and used its principle of construction to make these clocks.

Sundials were constructed to mark time in the clockwise direction as their shadows moved and marked time. Accordingly, by the end of that century, clocks on church buildings were made in imitation of sundials, and included hands that moved in a clockwise direction.

Notably, the word clockwise with its present meaning did not appear in English until the 1870s, with counterclockwise also appearing at about this time. The word clock is thought to have come from either clokke (Middle Dutch), cloque (Old North French) or clocca(Medieval Latin) which all meant bell. Some of the earliest mechanical clocks were simply designed to strike a bell at set intervals, or simply ring on the hour, and may not have had any faces.

And before they were called clocks, these early mechanical clocks were called horologia, from the Greek for hour (ὡρα) and to tell (λέγειν).

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