Modern Clocks: A Study in the Evolution of Time

How long have humans been telling time?

While modern clocks didn’t first appear until the 14th century, man has shown an understanding and appreciation of time since his first moments on Earth. As the world evolves, technology has expanded to provide us with more efficient methods of knowing the hour, but it wasn’t always easy, and in the beginning, we were often forced to make do with very little.

With no working clocks around, the earliest Homo sapiens would tell time by observing the stars and monitoring weather patterns. Seasonal changes also helped our cave-dwelling ancestors determine the times for daily activities such as feasting and farming.

Humans later worked their way up to sundials and water clocks. Using the position of the sun became a fairly reasonable method for understanding the minutes and seconds (as did measuring droplets in a glass), but something was still missing. Ultimately, things led to new discoveries such as the hourglass, which proved to be quite popular amongst societal ancients, wicked witches from Oz, and soap opera fans (“Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives”).

Jaeger LeCoultre Atmos 3000


We now reach a point in history where clocks take on a more defined look, utilizing the mechanics behind weights and springs to deliver time to wandering onlookers. At first, these clocks have no faces or hands, much less personality. Every hour, a bell can be heard throughout the village as the “medieval versions of cuckoos” chime for all to hear. Later down the line, these clocks decided they were tired of being “faceless entities” sitting in a room somewhere, and demanded their inventors show proper respect… So pretty soon, citizens begin witnessing clocks with markers, operating via the compatibility of cogs and levers as they work to make the seconds roll by.

In the 17th century, the pendulum clock is invented by Christiaan Huygens. The clocks are considered the most accurate timepieces to date. 60 years pass along and man is now making a greater living at sea than he ever has on land. Between sailors, whalers and other danger-craving sea-farers, there are young men and boys that spend their entire working careers before the mast, but amid the glories lay unimaginable terrors. Rising fatality rates amongst sailors unable to find their respective positions cause high demand for a clock that’s small and accurate enough to be carried on ships for navigational purposes.  Britain’s Parliament offers a prominent financial reward to anyone able to produce such an item; they eventually find their man in John Harrison, the creator of the ever-popular pocket watch.

Tissot Pocket Mechanical Skeleton


A century later, clocks are undergoing mass production, and can be found in the homes of not only the rich and famous but every grocer, baker or candlestick maker trying to earn a decent living. This is followed by the introduction of the modern wristwatch and then the atomic clock, consistently regarded as the most accurate “hour-giver” in existence.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Make time stand still.” If the production and creation of timepieces has shown us anything, it’s that time never stands still. As human beings, we are consistently moving forward, as is our passion and innovation. We change with time, and nothing has stood in the way of our prowess and idealism. Today, we see clocks on stoves, cell phones and television sets. There is nowhere we can turn without seeing a friendly “face” staring back, and with new inventions like the Apple Watch regularly making their way onto the modern market, it’s a true wonder what advancements our clocks will demonstrate in the next 100 years.

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“History of Telling Time.” Time for Time for Students and Teachers. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.