Qasim Wani: Gimpel, Chapter 7 – The Medieval Machine: The Mechanical Clock

The middle ages,  though sometimes synonymous with dark ages, was a time unlike any other time period in human history: it was a time period of progress and development.  This can be evident through the words of Gimpel, in chapter 7 of his book, The Medieval Machine, “the spirit of inventiveness that accompanied this outlook was only possible because medieval society believed in progress, a concept unknown to the classical world “(147).  Unlike the Greeks and Romans, people believed heavily on progress; they expected the future to be better than present.  This outlook towards progress and development led to rationality within men and women of the middle ages. Moreover, people during this time period weren’t bounded by tradition but rather by practicality of things and ideas; they accepted inventions as something normal and assumed for it to continue into the future.

One invention that displayed the engineering and rationality of men during this time period was the clock.  As Lewis Mumford said, “The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” The clock was unique from other inventions of the past; it didn’t do any work but rather, displayed useful information. The earliest clocks were believed to mock the way the solar system operated, hence the astronomical clock was invented. Prior to the invention, time was kept in disproportional ways. A few examples include:

  1. Water Clock: since a water clock uses water, during cold temperatures, the water inside the tubes would expand and freeze which would lead to inefficiency and inaccuracy in timekeeping. To address this problem, Mercury was used as a substitute for water has Mercury has a lower freezer point. Although it solved the water problem, this mechanism was still inefficient.
  2. Sundial: this ancient technique used the Sun and a localized center known as gnomon. The reason this technique was inefficient was because it would be ineffective on cloudy and dark days and nights.
  3. Hourglass: This invention was limited to recording time over short periods.
  4. Churches and town bells: churches relied on celestial signs, where they spread time out into 12 different segments, each representing a tiny portion of the day. This was inaccurate, because days and nights are not equally apart, nor do days last for the same duration during the entire year.

These weren’t the only techniques used to moderate time. Watch the attached video to see different way people measured times chronologically:

Hence, there was a need for the mechanical clock, a timekeeping mechanism not dependent on any celestial body. Unfortunately, there were two problems with the idea of a mechanical clock: weight driven mechanism and mechanical escapement mechanism. This problem was addressed through the works of Robert the Englishman, where he reported that clock makers were continuously trying to solve the mechanical problem for timekeeping.

Giovanni Di Dondi addressed the problem through the creation of astrarium in the 14th century.  He depicted the problem and his solution in his manuscript which was over 130,000 words in length regarding why he designed the clock, how to make it, how to set the dials and read them, how to maintain the mechanism, and how to repair the device. He also produced some drawing of his works. One famous sketch is the seven-sided framework of his astrarium where he gave intricate details of the clock train.  It can be noted from his manuscript that the mechanical clock that is similar to the ones we used nowadays was derived from the idea of the astronomical clock invented in the 15th century.

 Reconstruction of Giovanni’s astrarium


With the fruition and completion of the mechanical clock, time was recorded into ubiquitous and more proportional ways. Further advances in addressing other problems with regards to the mechanical clock led to the invention of the 40 different time zones. Through this meaningful and essential invention, people were now able to analyze and measure their day more accurately. This would increase trades and improve overall human condition in the world.

Through the invention of clocks, a close collaboration between science and engineering was noticed. “Here was a case where academic science and technology worked hand in hand…Not until the second half of nineteenth century were science and technology to be seen consistently working closely together”(159). This shows that science and technology need not be independent; in fact, for the exponential progress of society, both must be in symbiosis to each other.


Word count: 731


  1. The Medieval Machine: The Mechanical Clock -(Gimpel)