Saturday, January 15, 2011

Marking Time: Royalty, Monks, and Geishas

One of my favorite props, to convey the atmosphere in a room, or a character’s thoughts, is a clock. A timepiece can set the mood while a character writes a letter. In my work-in-progress, set in the 1800s, a girl writes to her father. The ticking of the wall clock, interrupted only by a bell sounding the half-hour, sets the mood. To indicate impatience or boredom, one glance at a clock will let the reader know the character’s thoughts. Here are some interesting facts I’ve come across, while researching timepieces.

In ancient times, sundials displayed the time of day, but because this method needed shadows for time telling, one would have to guess at the hour on cloudy days.

The earliest indoor timekeeping devices were water clocks and hour glasses, whose function was similar: a controlled amount of substance escaped a container, a measure of the amount released marking the passage of time.

With the advent of Christianity, calendars, prominent in monasteries, reminded the monks of Feast Days, of which there were plenty. Church bells wakened the citizens, whereupon they set out for daily tasks. Less important for peasants and commoners during the Middle Ages, timepieces were made with the nobility in mind, because workers began their day with the rising sun, and went to bed at dark.

One of the most charming, yet one of the simplest devices used, was the candle clock, which was designed to tell time at night. One of the ways a candle clock could be employed was to note the period of time it took a candle of controlled size and substance to burn to a certain length. Marks behind the candle, such as is illustrated in the picture to the right, would designate the passing hours as the candle burned.

Along with water and sand, incense was also used for timekeeping. In Japan, as late as 1924, geishas were paid by the number of incense sticks that had burned down.

In the early 1300s, the mechanical clock was invented in Europe, although the Arabs had used a system of gears and weights in their water clocks as early as the 11th century. During the 14th century, an escapement mechanism was devised, and two centuries later, clocks and pocket watches were spring-powered. Later, the pendulum came into use, an example of that slow, mesmerizing movement we see in longcase clocks.




14 comments:

Denise said...

Great post! I read your museum posts when you put them up but never commented on them. I do enjoy reading your blog.

I've never really thought about putting timepieces in my own writing but I've read about the water clocks and candles in some of my favorite books.

You've just reminded me there is another aspect I can put in my own books.

Thank you.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Joyce,

A very informative post. One of my favorite TV programs is Antiques Roadshow on PBS. They often display clocks and timepieces from various centuries. It's fascinating to me to comprehend the mechanisms.

Alyson Reuben said...

Hi, Joyce,

I've never considered how important the mention of timepieces could be in a story, but I can certainly see your point. I found it particularly interesting about the candle clocks. Although I collect antiques I've never heard of them before. From now on, I'll be on the lookout for candleholders with time markings! Thanks.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Denise: Glad you liked the museum posts. I thought they were interesting and informative. Authors always need tidbits like those. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with your writing.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Jackie: They fascinate me too, and I love to hear them tick. I've a few I collected, and some family keepsakes. Antique clocks can get pretty pricey! Glad you stopped by.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Alyson: I think the candle clocks were pretty rare, maybe because they were used so long ago, and also, who but a king would want to know the time at night? Ordinary folk were tired from the day's tasks--or at least that's what I'm guessing. I'm glad you stopped by my blog and hope you come back.

Maryann Miller said...

I love the candle clock. That was one I had never heard of. Thanks for the informative piece.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Very informative post! I don't write historical fiction but you got me thinking about how modern time devices can create atmosphere and suspense too - such as the LED time display on a kitchen stove blinking when the power goes out or the brightly illuminated numbers on a bedside clock that seem to stand still on a sleepless night...

Christina Crooks said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I love the candle clock too. Hadn't seen that before. Wonder how well it works?

Suzi said...

I love clocks too and often use them in my historical stories,
Thanks for a great post,
Suzi

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Maryann: I love your website, with the feather and ink pot. Play it Again, Sam is on my TBR list, because i couldn't resist the title. I didn't know about the candle clock either until I saw it during my research. They look so "Middle Ages" don't they?

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Joyce: Gosh, great imagery there, so yes, they can make a powerful statement in a scene. Thanks for stopping by.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Christina: From what I could figure out, the accuracy depended on the maker, like how accurate the lines were. Some had wooden sides around the candle. I'd love to own one. Glad you stopped by.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Suzi: I went to your blog and left a comment. Glad you stopped by!