What Were Candle Clocks, And How Did They Work?


It was a long time before humans stumbled upon inventing the alarm clocks. Before that, humanity relied upon other simple but handy inventions to tell time. One of the ways to quantify time was to look at the phases of the moon, and at the rising and setting of the sun. That being said, sundials became hugely popular to measure the time of the day. But what about the nights or cloudy days when the sun could not be seen. That is when the candle clocks came into picture.

What Were Candle Clocks, And Did They Actually Work?
via Wikimedia Commons/AlejandroLinaresGarcia

What is a candle clock?

The candle stood on a stand bearing markings on the side on regular lengths. Therefore, as the candle melted away one could tell how much time had passed. The markings were made with the candle standing next to another device to measure time, like the sundial. These candles were also designed to burn for exactly a certain number of hours.

What Were Candle Clocks, And Did They Actually Work?
via Wikimedia Commons/Catlemur

These candles acted as a night light and also as an alarm clock. One could stick metal nails at a desired time so that it fell with a clang after the candle burnt for that time period, serving as an alarm.

Origins

We know that these candle clocks existed in China in 520CE through the earliest recorded reference of a poem by You Jiangu. There are six candles described in the poem which are each 12 inches tall and are of equal thickness. These candles lasted 4 hours, which means each inch took 20 minutes to burn.

What Were Candle Clocks, And Did They Actually Work?
via Wikimedia Commons/de:Benutzer:Flyout

This method of telling time was also used in Japan during the first millennium century. English Churches were also using these candle clocks during the reign of King Alfred the Great.

The Al-Jazari candles

What Were Candle Clocks, And Did They Actually Work?
via Wikimedia Commons under Public domain

Al-Jazari was a 12th century Muslim engineer and polymath.  His candle clocks were a calculated mechanism of pulleys and weights which made the burning of the candle turn a frontward dial to make it easier to tell time. He was also known for other important inventions like the water pump and water-based clocks.

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