Telling time wasn’t always so easy

  • Even sundials were too costly for most of the early settlers of the region, who resorted to judging the time based on marks on their windowsill. File photo

A Look Back
Monday, January 21, 2019 11:55AM

Time, of course, has always existed. But the ability to tell time in any precise way has not always been around. Clocks first appeared in Europe about 1120 A.D., and were used in England dating back to 1288, but they were rare and expensive. Few made their way across the Atlantic to the Colonies.

In New England, brass clocks were manufactured beginning in 1720 or so; they were made in New Hampshire as far back as 1730. Clocks were made in Weare beginning during the Revolutionary War, and in Antrim a few years later. Even so, they cost between $40 and $100, putting them out of reach of most folks.

Francestown’s 1895 town history devotes a few paragraphs to the difficulties of telling time without time pieces.

“For the first half-century of Francestown the people experienced much difficulty in ‘keeping time,’” the history reports. “They could not make exact appointments, but would agree to meet ‘about sunrise,’ or about noon.’’ This made a fine excuse for the tardy man, and for those always late at church! People in those days set their houses ‘square with the sun,’ or as near to it as they could, and then put a ‘noon-mark’ on the window-sill, which would give them the time once a day in fair weather. Or by going out of doors they could tell very nearly when it was noon by the shadow of the sun on the sides of the house. A very few families had ‘sun-dials,’ which answered a good purpose when the sun was shining, and required no attention to keep them in order. The ‘sun-dial’ consisted of a plate or disc of pewter (sometimes of wood) about twenty inches in diameter, with hours and half-hours marked on the circumference, and with a perpendicular piece of wood about two feet long and an inch square rising from the centre of the plate.”

Sun dials, however, worked only when the sun shone.

A few of the early residents used hour glasses as timing devices. Doctors often loaned these out to patients who needed to take medication on a regular basis. The hour glasses didn’t exactly keep time, but would indicate when an hour had passed.

Others used a device called a clepsydra, or water clock. The clepsydra worked on the same premise as the hour glass, but used water instead or sand and would run up to 24 hours. It was made of a cylinder of glass, with hours and half hours marked on the side. The water would drip through a small hole at the bottom of the cylinder. “It was often quite accurate, and was very ornamental and stylish,” the historians wrote. “But it involved considerable expense, and a great deal of work to fill and set it; it was liable to be clogged by any small substance in the water, and to be destroyed by freezing in cold weather, and never was in any general use in this country.”

Since it was so hard to keep time, meetings were often set not for 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. but “early candle lighting” – the point when it began to be dark. “They would have one advantage in those days in this, that they could not be looking at their watches nor turning round to see the clock, before the prayer-meeting was half done!”

A Look Back originally appeared in the Monadnock Ledger.