Kailey Deane – Chapter 7 Gimpel’s “The Medieval Machine”: The Mechanical Clock

Chapter 7 of The Medieval Machine, by Jean Gimpel, illustrates the innovations that lead to the mechanical and astronomical clock, as well as the Medieval society that allowed for such work to take place.

The Middle Ages, although considered to be a dark period for humanity, set the stage for invention and innovation. Unlike earlier times, progress was seen as a positive and normal part of life. Inventors during this time were known for being bolder and less worried about the traditions of prior societies. This mindset allowed for the invention of many useful technologies, including eyeglasses. One of the most influential inventions that emerged during this time was, and still is, the mechanical clock.

Prior to the invention of the mechanical clock, time was kept in unequal and unreliable ways. One of the main time indicators was church and town bells. However, the divisions of time were based upon equal dark and light times of the day. This was not a correct system, as night and day are typically not equally divided, and the hours of daylight changes during various times of the year. Even clocks that were invented were unreliable; the water-powered clock could not be used during the winter, as the water would freeze.

The invention of the mechanical clock was not done overnight and was developed by multiple people. One of the earlier examples was seen in China during the 11th century, with a complex astronomical clock created by Su Sung. However, astronomical devices at the time were strictly watched by the government, limiting the knowledge known about the machine, and the clock did not survive once later dynasties took charge.

The quest to design a mechanical clock was not seen until later in Europe. Inventors began trying to find a more reliable clock design around the latter half of the 13th century; one of the earlier tested designs involved replacing the water in water-powered clocks with mercury. Eventually, the mechanical clock emerged, which is hypothesized to be a result of astronomical clocks. The exact date is argued, but manuscripts and illustrations signify that the mechanical clock was established by the 14th century.

Abbot Richard of Wallingford was an earlier pioneer of innovating astronomical clocks, who spent many years working in a monastery. He created the Albion, which could predict the position of the planets and was influential for later astronomical devices, and the Rectangulus. The amount of time that he devoted to these devices and their manuscripts earned him the disdain of others; he was even reprimanded by King Edward III. However, the detail that he put in to his manuscripts helped pave the way for later devices and later recreations of his own.

Giovanni Di Dondi created the astrarium in the 14th century, which incorporated elements of the mechanical and astronomical clock. This device, made of brass and bronze, included a twenty-four-hour time keeping system, a calendar of important religious dates, and the position of multiple planets at any given time. His clock included the sun and moon, along with Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, and Venus. Unlike most clocks at the time, which was set in sync with the sunset, Giovanni used noon to set the astrarium. Along with this astronomical clock, he wrote and illustrated a detailed manuscript. This manuscript allowed for the spread of his invention; the manuscript was printed repeatedly, catching the attention and admiration of many. His design was even copied by Leonardo da Vinci.  Giovanni’s manuscript was specific in such a way that exact replicas have been made in recent years. The main astronomical components of the astrarium, versus the smaller mechanical aspects, have led Gimpel and others to believe that the mechanical clock was a “by-product” of the astronomical clock.

The mechanical clock, and even an equal division of time itself, changed society. Bells in towns and churches were made more reliable, and people were able to align to the same schedule. King Charles V even required that all clocks match his, creating an established system for everyone to follow. The Roman Church incorporated the clock into their churches. Overall, the clock spread, and a reliable system of timekeeping was received in a positive manner. However, the Greek Orthodox church opposed the clock up until the 20th century, as they considered timekeeping to be unimportant when considering eternity. The East did not adopt the same timekeeping methods as the West for many years, either.

The complexity of the astrarium, especially for it’s time, is further explained in this article (click link). The design worked by a verge and foliot system, unlike most clocks at the time. There were numerous dials and 107 wheels in the machine. The clock was able to tell the viewer the position of planets using longitude. The sun and moon’s orbit could be seen. There was a built-in calendar system, which showed important dates for the church. Even dates that changed each year, such as Easter, could be set accurately. Although the original astrarium fell into disrepair, all of these details are known as a result of Giovanni’s excellent manuscript.


Word Count: 846

Image: http://www.uh.edu/engines/didondi.jpg

5 Replies to “Kailey Deane – Chapter 7 Gimpel’s “The Medieval Machine”: The Mechanical Clock”

  1. Kailey,
    Liked your summary of the chapter. Nice job detailing innovations that led to the mechanical clock. You explained nicely the complexity of Giovanni’s astrarium. As a follow-up question, what do you think is the relationship between clocks and the development of science and technology?

  2. Great summary about this chapter! All of the different components that make up a clock are often times overlooked and it was good to see them discussed and researched in detail.

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