100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

The Mechanical Clock
Year of Invention: 1657

What Is It? A mechanical device that will accurately measure time.

Who Invented It? Christian Huygens (in the Netherlands)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Clocks changed human concepts of time. Without clocks there can be no hours, minutes, or seconds. There is only the passing of day and night, of seasons, and of lifetimes.

The dependable precision of clocks made scientific measurement possible. They made possible the development of natural laws by such scientific giants as Newton, Descartes, and Leibniz.

Clocks also dictate our schedules and our lives. Clocks tell us when to go to bed, when to get up, when to eat, when to work, and when to play. Because the clock has made time so important, we often measure distance not in miles, but by how much time it will take to cover that distance.

The clock was created to serve the human need to define time, and now that same clock controls the masters it was created to serve.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

The first humans measured time by the sun (dawn, noon, and sunset). At some point, some clever humans stuck a stick in the ground and realized that they could mark the position of the sun’s shadow at different times of the day around that stick. The device was called a sundial. By 3500 B.C., sundials were common in both China and Egypt. The Greek inventor, Anaximander, built the first Greek metal sundial in about 600 B.C.

Candles that burned a set number of inches in a fixed amount of time first appeared around 1500 B.C. as a way to keep track of time’s passing. So did the hourglass, in which fine sand dripped from an upper chamber into a lower. Water clocks had also become popular by 1000 B.C. In a water clock, water dripped from one chamber into another at a known rate. In 800 B.C., several major Egyptian temples featured 24-hour (one day) water clocks.

In A.D. 725 and after almost 30 years of development, Chinese courtier Yi Xing built a magnificent and complex water clock to track the movement of the planets and stars. That

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