How Father Time Got His Hour-Glass
EVERY now and then one sees a picture of a lean old gentleman, with a long
white beard, flowing robes, and an expression of most misleading benignity.
In spite of his look of kindly good humor, he is none too popular with the
human race and his methods are not always of the gentlest. In one hand he
carries the familiar scythe, and, in the other, the even more familiar
hourglass. By this we may assume that he began to be pictured in this way
while the hourglass was still in common use.
The principle of the hourglass is so similar to that of the clepsydra, and
its first use was so early, that it is somewhat of a misnomer to speak of it
as a successor. About the only justification that can be made is that the
clepsydra has long disappeared, while the sand-glass--if not the
hourglass--is still sold in the stores for such familiar uses as timing the
boiling of eggs, the length of telephone-conversations, and other short-time
Nothing could be much simpler than the hourglass, in which fine sand poured
through a tiny hole from an upper into a lower compartment. It had none of
the mechanical features of the later clepsydrae; it did not adjust itself to
astronomical laws like the perfected sun-dials; it merely permitted a steady
stream of fine sand to pass through an opening at a uniform rate of speed,
until one of the funnel-shaped bowls had emptied itself--then waited with
entire unconcern until some one stood it upon its head and caused the sand
to run back again.
However, it possessed some very solid advantages of its own. It would not
freeze; it would not spill over; it did not need refilling; it would run at
a steady rate whether the reservoir were full or nearly empty; it could be
made very cheaply, and there was nothing about it to wear out.
A water-clock might be of considerable size but a sandclock, since it
required turning, must be kept small, and an hour-glass--a size small enough
to carry--became popular, although its use was correspondingly limited.
Thus, it naturally was assigned to Father Time to be carried before watches
were available. A sun-dial simply would not answer this purpose, since the
old gentleman works by night as steadily as by day.
How old is the sand-glass?
We do not know definitely, but it is said to have been invented at
Alexandria about the middle of the third century B. C. That it was known in
ancient Athens is certain, for a Greek bas-relief at the Mattei Palace in
Rome, representing a marriage, shows Morpheus, the god of dreams, holding an
hour-glass. The Athenians used to carry these timepieces as we do our
Some hour-glasses contained mercury, but sand was an ideal substance, for,
when fine and dry, it flows with an approximately constant speed whether the
quantity is great or small, whereas, liquids descend more swiftly the
greater the pressure above the opening.
Hour-glasses were introduced into churches in the early sixteenth century
when the preachers were famous for their wearisome sermons. The story is
told of one of these longwinded divines who, on a hot day, had reached his
"tenthly" just as the restless congregation were gladdened to see the last
grains of sand fall from the upper bowl. "Brethren," he remarked; "Let us
take another glass," And he reversed it--"Ahem, as I was saying--" And he
went on for another hour.
Other preachers, more merciful, used a half-hour glass and kept within its
limits. Many churches were furnished with ornamental stands to hold the
glass. These time-keepers lingered along in country churches for many years,
but ceased to be in anything like general demand after about 1650.
For rough purposes of keeping time on board ship, sandglasses were employed
and it is curious to note that hour and half-hour glasses were used for this
purpose in the British navy as recently as the year 1839.
The very baby of the hour-glass family was a twenty-eight second affair
which assisted in determining the speed of the vessel. The log-line was
divided by knots, at intervals of forty-seven feet, three inches, and this
distance would go into a nautical mile as many times as twenty-eight seconds
would go into an hour. When the line was thrown overboard the mariner
counted the number of knots slipping through his fingers while his eyes were
fixed on the tiny emptying sand-glass, and in this way so many "knots" an
hour denoted the ship's speed in miles.
In the British House of Commons, even at the present time, a two-minute
glass is used in the preliminary to a "division," which is a method of
voting wherein the members leave their seats and go into either the
affirmative or negative lobbies. While the sand is running, "division-bells"
are set in motion in every part of the building to give members notice that
a "division" is at hand.
It was an ancient custom to put an hour-glass, as an emblem that the sands
of life had run out, into coffins at burials.
Another early means of recording time applied the principle of the
consumption of some slow-burning fuel by fire. From remote ages, the Chinese
and Japanese thus used ropes, knotted at regular intervals, or cylinders of
glue and sawdust marked in rings, which slowly smoldered away. Alfred the
Great, that noble English king of the ninth century, is said to have
invented the candle-clock, because of a vow to give eight hours of the day
to acts of religion, eight hours to public affairs, and eight hours to rest
and recreation. He had six tapers made, each twelve inches long and divided
into twelve parts, or inches, colored alternately black and white. Three of
these parts were burned in one hour, making each inch represent twenty
minutes, so that his six candles, lighted one after the other by his
chaplains, would burn for twenty-four hours.
The Eskimos also, through the long arctic night have watched the lamp which
gives both light and heat to their cold huts of snow. But all these are no
more than crude conveniences, whose irregularity is evident, and there is
likewise no need to do more than call attention to the effect upon fire in
any form, of wind or dampness in the air. The Roman lamp-clock sheltered
from the weather was the best of them all, and was the only one which long
continued in civilized use.
Our chief interest in all such devices comes from the touch of poetry still
remaining in the tradition of the sacred flame which must be kept forever
burning, and in association of life and time with fire, in such parables as
that of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. There is a reminder of this old
time-keeping by fire in all that poetry and philosophy which tells of hope
that still may live or of deeds that may be done, "while the lamp holds out
Thus far, in spite of occasional glimpses of the Middle Ages and of modern
times, we have dealt, for the most part, with earlier ages. Now our story
must leave these behind, and thus passes the ancient world with its strange
pagan civilization which was so human, so wise and so simple. It is
difficult for modern Americans even to imagine existence in ancient Greece
or Rome or in still more ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia--since the whole
attitude toward life was so essentially different from what it is to-day.
Our debt to the ancients in this one matter of recording time is typical of
that in many others. To them we owe our whole fundamental system and
conception of it from the astronomy by which we measure our years and our
seasons and make our appeal to the final standard of the stars, down to the
arithmetic of our minutes and seconds and the very names of our months and
In the modern application and practical use of all this, on the other hand,
we owe them nothing. They never made a clock or watch, or any like device
which has more than a merely ornamental use to-day. They gave us the general
plan so well that we have never bettered it, but they left later generations
to work out the details. They invented the second as a division of time but
they did not measure by it. They did not care to try. For them, learning was
the natural right and power of the few, and the gulf between the most that
was known by the few and the little that was known in general, was like the
gulf between great wealth and great poverty among ourselves.
Indeed, in this age of teaching and preaching, when a thought seems to need
only to be born in order to be spread abroad over the world, it is hard for
us even to conceive the instinct by which men kept their learning like a
secret among the initiated and felt no impulse to make known that which they
Their great men thought and did wonderful things which are now the common
property of us all. And their common folk lived in a fashion astonishingly
primitive by comparison, in an ignorance which certainly was weakness and
may somehow have been bliss.
That world of theirs is gone--the body and the spirit of it alike. And there
remains to us, along with much of their art and their science, the
hour-glass to symbolize that relentless flight of time which they feared but
never tried to save; and the quaint sun-dial in our gardens, a memory of
that worldly-wise old philosophy which counted only the shining hours.