Tag Archives: technology

How to build a better water clock

Ctesibius of Alexandria. Believe it or not, this guy’s dad was a barber.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll remember that a couple of posts ago I ranted about how Egyptian water-clocks seemed impractical and I didn’t see how they could even function as clocks at all.

Well, apparently back around 270 bc, an inventor named Ctesibius (Teh-SEE-bee-us) of Alexandria thought the same thing. He identified two problems:

One) The water-clock wasn’t a clock, but rather a timer. It only worked while there was water in it.

Two) The water came out of the bung-hole at the bottom at different rates of speed: quickly when the jar was full, slowly as it grew empty. That’s because the weight of the water on top pushed down on the water that was escaping—less water, less pressure, slower dripping of water. That made it unreliable for keeping time.

So how did Ctesibius fix these problems? Well, he figured in order to keep constant pressure on the hole at the bottom, the water clock should always be full. So he set up a second jar of water to keep the first one filled. The second jar had a hole at the bottom that leaked water into the first jar.

THEN, a third, empty jar was placed under the first jar. Instead of telling the time by how much water had leaked out, this empty jar told time by how much water had leaked into it.

Ctesibius even made a float to put into the empty jar. As the water level rose, an arrow—attached to the float—pointed to the hour.

A tip of the hat to Heidi K. for sending me a link to this video!

Egyptian sundials

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An Egyptian lady catching some rays from Ra.

Let’s travel west from Sumer, away from the MidEast, along the northern coast of Africa to Egypt. About 1,000 years after civilization was up and running in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Egyptians got started on their civilization which thrived from 3100 bc to 332 bc. Like the Sumerians, Egyptians depended on a river—the Nile—and a system of irrigation to water their crops to keep the economy going. Their writing system was hieroglyphics—symbols that represented sounds, or ideas, or things. Their government was monarchical—they had a single ruler, called a Pharaoh. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon—which means a bunch of gods and demi-gods. The Pharaoh was worshiped as a god, too.

The Sumerian culture must have influenced the Egyptians somewhat. The Egyptians divided the day into two halves, each having 12 hours—twelve is an easy Base Sixty number. The Egyptians are thought to have invented the sundial. The earliest example of a sundial has 12 hours marked using lines on a semi-circle, 15° apart.

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A fragment of a limestone sundial. The gnomon goes into the hole at top.

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This sundial is a half-bowl cut out of a block of stone.

A sundial is a simple way to measure the passage of the Sun. There’s a post (called a gnomon, pronouced NOM-ON) sticking up from a flat, horizontal surface. Lines are drawn on the flat surface, radiating out from the gnomon. When the Sun is shining, the gnomon casts a shadow on the lines. Each line represents the passage of an hour.

The Egyptians built huge obelisks—big stone monuments. These were sundials, too. The obelisk cast a shadow on the ground, which was marked for every hour. As the Sun moved across the sky, the shadow would move along the dial, showing the time. Of course, sundials only work when there’s daylight. How did they tell time at night?

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