Back to School - Primitive Time Keeping Devices

Back to School – Primitive Time Keeping Devices

From the old-school pocket watch to the new-school electronic smartwatch recent history has seen a huge development in timekeeping devices. But that’s not all there is to the history of timekeeping and horology, with primitive yet fascinating and clever devices invented and used by a number of civilisations from prehistoric and ancient times these are arguably some of the more wonderful horological devices, steeped in the tradition of their cultural origins. Here at Boutique Von Burg we’re going to cover some of the best primitive or ancient timekeeping devices we have found. Read on to find out more!

Megalithic Clocks

As seen at world-famous heritage site Stonehenge as an example, megalithic clocks were left by prehistoric civilisations with no recorded history. It is thought that these devices though were used to tell the time and predict seasonal and annual events. Such a shame that no history was written however perhaps part of the beauty of these devices comes from the mystery behind them.

Sundials and Shadow Clocks

It is thought that some of the earliest clocks were simple shadow clocks, where objects blocking the sun were used to cast a measurable shadow on the ground, thus the time of day could be told according to the position of this shadow, giving rise to the sundial. The oldest known sundial hails from Egypt and is estimated to date back to around 1500BC. Again some of these dials are gorgeous with carvings out of huge pieces of stone, for example, the Luxor Obelisk found in Paris, France.

Water clocks

Arguably more useful than sundials as they could be used inside, during the night, and also when the sky was cloudy, water clocks have numerous designs but essentially were all based on the flow and physics of water across a measurable device. Although starting off as less accurate than sundials, a number of engineering solutions took place over time, with problems in designs being addressed by ancient horologists. These were also some of the first clocks to have complications, with some water clocks ringing bells, gongs, and capable of having alarms. Historians have water clocks used across a number of ancient civilisations such as Greece, Rome, Persia, and China.

Candle Clocks

Reliant on the steady consumption of a candle as the flame burns, candle clocks were made of specially made candles set to specific measurements and weight, and marked on the side. Once lit the candle would be placed in a small glass cabinet to prevent the flame from extinguishing, yet still keeping the candle visible. These candles were used to tell the time overnight when sundials no longer could.

Incense Clocks

Similar to the candle clock, incense clocks were said to burn more steadily and evenly due to a lack of a flame. They were used for religious and cultural ceremonies, and could also have complications attached, such as weights to make an alarm sound once the incense burnt through.


The hourglass was said to be the first dependable, reusable, reasonably accurate, and easily constructed timekeeping device, as well as being somewhat easy to transport. These made them perfect for applications such as sailing, where timekeeping devices would be needed yet difficult to get on a ship or boat. Other applications included industry and cooking. Interestingly it is the hourglass that has come to take on the symbolic meaning of the passage of time and its associations, for example, death, temperance, opportunity, and Father Time, more to be written on him later.

Other Clocks

From those clocks and horological devices already covered, from here we move onto special clocks and workings, such as astronomical clocks and clock towers which used a number of mechanisms to tell the time, as well as astronomical position, for example, water power, manpower, or pendulums. From here it wouldn’t be long until the first primitive mechanical watch was made, and that brings us up to speed, arriving at the recent history of timekeeping devices.

We hope you liked this article, stay tuned for more and thanks for reading!