Measuring Time with Water Thieves

Cultural Perspectives • 19 Nov 2019

Measuring Time with Water Thieves

by Gemma Kaczerepa


From sundials and hourglasses to atomic clocks and high-tech digital wristwatches, timekeepers have come in several guises over the past 4000 years. One such form is the water clock, or clepsydra (meaning “water thief” in Greek), a timepiece that uses a controlled flow of liquid to measure the time. Along with the sundial, the water clock is one of the oldest timekeeping devices, first being used thousands of years ago. While the water clock has since been replaced by more accurate methods of timekeeping, it’s had something of a rebirth just this year thanks to Australian industrial designer Marc Newson.

Al-Jazari’s Elephant Water Clock

In celebration of The Hour Glass’s 40th anniversary, Newson has designed a modern interpretation of the water clock appropriately titled ‘Klepsydra’. Newson’s version takes the fundamentals of the traditional water clock and reimagines them through his archetypal Modernist approach; the Klepsydra functions somewhat similarly but is strikingly contemporary in both its appearance and mechanics. To celebrate the launch of Klepsydra, we’re exploring the history of the water clock, from its ancient origins to today.

Marc Newson’s Klepsydra for our “Then Now Beyond” Exhibition

The water clock is closely associated with Ancient Greece, but the earliest water clock actually appeared many years before the Greeks embraced it. Experts believe the very first iteration was buried in the tomb of Egyptian Pharoah Amenhotep I in 1500 BCE. The water clock was then introduced to Ancient Greece by Plato in 325 BCE.

Fragment of a basalt water-clock (Source)

Before the water clock’s debut, the sundial had been the primary form of timekeeping for over 1000 years. Invented in Ancient Egypt, the sundial’s design was derived from shadow clocks, using the position of the sun to gauge the time of day. But, the sundial’s limitations were obvious; it was impossible to tell the time at night or on a day that lacked sunlight. The water clock solved the sundial’s issues, presenting a much more accurate and uninterrupted way of keeping time.

Observation deck of the Vrihat Samrat Yantra (Source)

The water clock’s mechanics were nothing short of brilliant. Early on, there were typically two types: outflow and inflow. An outflow water clock uses a container that has markings on the inside. Water flows out of the container at a constant pace and the markings show how much the water level has dropped and, consequently, how much time has passed. An inflow water clock is similar, but the water flows into a second container that has markings on its interior. Another version of the water clock (although a much less accurate one) uses a metal bowl sitting inside a large container.

A display of two outflow water clocks from the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens (Source)

The bowl slowly sinks thanks to a small hole in its base, which shows the passing of time. Plato took the mechanics one step further, using an inflow water clock with an intricate mechanism that made a whistling sound when air was forced through it. His device is considered the first-ever alarm clock.

Water Clock Decorated with a Baboon (Source)

Over the following centuries, water clocks became increasingly refined. Between 100 BCE and 500 CE, both Greek and Roman astronomers and horologists continued to work on them. They mechanised the once elementary system so that the flow and pressure of the water became more controlled. They added fun visual elements, too, such as opening doors and small statues. In China between 200 and 1300 CE, local engineers were creating their own mechanical water clocks. A huge water clock tower measuring nine metres (30 feet) tall was erected in 1088 by scientist Su Song. Located in then capital Bianjing (modern-day Kaifeng), it was an elaborate feat of engineering.

Replica of Su Song’s Astronomical Water Clock. Sitting atop the layers of horizontal gears is an armillary sphere (Source)

Ultimately, the water clock became an unsustainable system. As engineering progressed, the rudimentary nature of the water clock prevented it from being developed any further. There are a few water clocks remaining around the world, but their popularity receded once better systems were invented. Mechanical clocks started appearing around 723 CE and gradually took over other timekeeping methods as they became more advanced. This eventually led to the creation of quartz and digital methods of keeping time, both of which are still widely used.

Water clock calculations by Nabû-apla-iddina (Source)

Fast-forward to 2019, and Marc Newson’s Klepsydra presents a new spin on the water clock. Klepsydra uses the basic mechanism of the traditional water clock to tell the time, but harnesses the flow of 2.8 million stainless steel nanoballs instead of water. Like the original, Klepsydra relies on gravity to power the clock; the nanoballs are scooped up and emptied by cups affixed to a rotating wheel, creating a see-saw motion that helps rotate the clock’s hand. It’s an incredibly intricate system that took three years to develop in-house at Newson’s studio. Housed in a striking mouth-blown, hand-carved crystal glass case with aluminium and stainless steel accents, the clock is equally impressive for its visual appeal. It’s an appropriate homage to the original water clock: smart, sophisticated and thoroughly ingenious.

Tags: design marc newson

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