Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Clocks of Your World

By Shana Perry Norris
2003, Shana Perry Norris

hen I began working on my first fantasy novel a year ago, I soon came to a problem that stumped me: how do the people of my world track the time of day? This was a pre-technological world, with only limited magic. I knew that they already used the phases of the moon to determine months and the cycling of the seasons to determine years, but I had no idea how they determined the passage of time within a day.

To solve my dilemma, I turned to researching the evolution of timepieces within human society on our own planet. Ancient civilizations developed calendars at the beginning of time in order to keep track of when to plant and harvest crops or when to plan nomadic behavior, but it was only 5000 to 6000 years ago that people began developing clocks in order to mark the passage of time within a day. Before timepieces, the first means of measuring time was by simply using the position of the sun in the sky. People would use the sun's position to arrange meeting times. With this method, your character would point at a place in the sky on the sun's path. The second character would know that the first character intended to meet at a certain place when the sun was at the indicated position.

The Scandinavians used this method, except that they related the position of the sun to objects below that position, such as mountains. They divided the daylight sky into eight parts, called eighths. These sections were identified by the mountains beneath the marks, which lead to mountains being named after certain times of the day. Each eighth had its own name. For more information on these daymarks, how they were divided and their names, visit

By using the position of the sun to tell time, the only accurate measurements were sunrise, midday, and sunset. Shadow lengths were used to determine the time through the rest of the day, which led to the creation of sundials. The earliest sundials were merely poles planted into the ground, later becoming stone columns or pyramids. The earliest known Egyptian sundials, obelisks, were built around 3500 BC. The sundial eventually changed into the form we know now, a round plate with an upright part protruding from the center. Markers were added around the sundial's base, dividing the day into sections. These sundials were usually very large and heavy, not something to be carried on a journey. What if your character was far from any home or village that might have a sundial? I discovered that by the 10th century, various forms of pocket sundials were in use.

While sundials in some parts of the world were marked only for midday and four "tides" to indicate important daylight hours, other sundials were marked to divide a day into twelve parts, from sunrise to sunset. This 12-hour division came into use in Egypt around 1500 BC. The shadow clock used at that time was composed of a long stem, with five variably spaced marks. This clock measured ten parts of the day, with two twilight sections added to mark morning and evening. The stem was oriented east and west in the morning, with an elevated crossbar on the eastern end to cast a moving shadow over the marks. At midday, the clock would be turned to the opposite direction to measure the afternoon hours.

Using a water clock was another way of marking the passage of time, especially during the night, and was one of the first methods of timekeeping that did not involve the study of the celestial bodies. There were three ways that these water clocks could work. One method was allowing the water to drip out. The clock was a bowl with a small hole in the bottom, which allowed water to drip out at a constant rate. Another method was allowing water to fill a container at a constant rate, with markings on the inside of the bowl to mark hours as the water level rose. The third method also let water into the bowl, but the bowl was placed in a large container of water. The bowl slowly filled from a hole in the bottom and passage of time was indicated by how long it took for the bowl to fill and sink.

Later, water clocks became more advanced, being made to ring bells or open doors to reveal miniature people, or even to move dials or replicas of the universe. These water clocks were also used to keep track of time during speeches at government assemblies. When the water ran out, the speaker had to leave the podium, even if he hadn't yet made his point!

No one knows when the hourglass was first used, but it was composed of two bulb ends made of glass, connected by a thin neck. The rate at which the sand, water, or mercury fell through the neck from the top bulb into the bottom determined the passage of time. Hourglasses in your stories do not have to mark just the passage of hours--you could have hourglasses of various sizes to mark the passage of minutes, days, or even weeks. The only limit is your imagination and the size of the room in which your character stores these hourglasses.

Fire was also put to use in marking time. The Ancient Chinese marked the passage of hours by burning incense. Candles were used as early timepieces in parts of the world as well. Different lengths of candles or incense sticks would mark the passage of different amounts of time. The earliest alarm clocks were developed from "candle clocks." A nail would be pushed into the wax and when the candle had burned down to that point, the nail would fall into a tin pan positioned below the candle, most likely providing a startled awakening for the sleeping person.

On the other hand, your world can have mechanical clocks and still be a pre-technological society. The first mechanical clocks on Earth began appearing during the early to mid-fourteenth century, using weights to power them, though they were large and usually only used in towers in the center of town. The entire town would rely on these public clocks to keep time since they were often too expensive for the average citizen to own. Spring-powered clocks were developed in 1510 and pendulum clocks were developed in 1656.

Determine what types of timepieces are essential for your world and what advances they would have made at their point in time. The ancient timepieces I mentioned above should help you in determining how the people of your world would track the hours of a day, if they have need to know the time. Let your imagination free in developing clocks for your characters to use.

Below are a few of the links that I found helpful in my research and that contain more information on some of the clocks I listed above: