The Scent of Time: A Study of the Use of Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries

The Scent of Time: A Study of the Use of Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries

The Scent of Time: A Study of the Use of Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries

The Scent of Time: A Study of the Use of Fire and Incense for Time Measurement in Oriental Countries

Excerpt

The history of time measurement is filled with many curiosities, none more mysterious and exotic than the examples of the use of fire and incense for timekeeping in Oriental countries.

Until now the so-called fire clocks and incense clocks of China and Japan have evoked only casual comment in the form of brief and passing reference, not only in the histories of science and technology of the Western world, but in the literature and historical accounts of the countries in which they were devised and employed. The lack of recorded information appeared to be indicative of the fact that fire and incense timekeepers were at best no more than novelties, occasionally encountered but not worthy of serious consideration.

It is surprising, therefore, to learn that the use of fire and incense for time measurement has an extensive history, examples having been noted as early as the sixth century A.D. Furthermore, references recently discovered in the works of Oriental writers as well as in the correspondence and the journals of European missionaries to the Far East, indicate that fire and incense clocks served their purpose quite as adequately and as extensively as the sundials and clepsydrae that were the only other timekeepers employed in the epoch preceding the introduction of mechanical timepieces. Consequently, fire and incense clocks merit a place with them in the history of horology, and of Oriental technology.

Briefly, the earliest form of timekeeper used in China appears to have been the sundial, according to a description of one published in the Shu period ( third century B.C.). Relics of two individual examples, which were probably made in the Zenkan period ( 206 B.C.-A.D. 7) were reported by Ryufuku.2 These were of a primitive form but included indications for the seasons and the compass directions. Their primary function may have been to measure the time only at noon. They may not have been indigenous to China but introduced from another country.

Water clocks appeared to have had a slightly later origin, according to present information, and were probably developed in China by at least A.D. 100-200. An interesting development from these was the sand clock in which water was replaced by sand. This . . .

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