Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Clepsydras and the measurement of time

The original idea was simple enough. At first, it was merely that of a vessel of water, having a small hole in the bottom, so that the liquid dripped out drop by drop. As the level within the jar was lowered, it showed the time upon a scale. Thus, if the hole were so small and the vessel were so large that it would require twenty-four hours for the water to drip away at an absolutely steady rate, it may be seen that the side of the vessel might easily have been marked with twenty-four divisions to indicate the hours...
...The most interesting human fact, however, about the clepsydra is that it involved an entirely different conception of the marking of time. Now it was not so much a question of when as of how long. A good sun-dial set in a proper position would always indicate three o'clock when it was three o'clock, but the clepsydra might do no such thing. It would merely show how many hours had elapsed since last it was filled, and the steady drip, drip, drip of the escaping water could--and did--lower the surface quite as evenly at one time of day as at another.

Emphasis mine. 


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