People Had ‘Candle Clocks’ to Tell Time Before Watches Were a Thing—And Even Candle Alarm Clocks

People Had ‘Candle Clocks’ to Tell Time Before Watches Were a Thing—And Even Candle Alarm Clocks
Left: (Nata_Alhontess/Lukasz Szwaj/Shutterstock); Middle: (Benutzer:Flyout/CC BY-SA 3.0); Right: (Public Domain)
Epoch Inspired Staff
2/10/2024
Updated:
2/10/2024
0:00

The toasty glow of a candle can offer way more than a warm, fuzzy comfort on a cold winter’s night indoors—more than a romantic mood at a dinner table.

The steady burning of a candle, a wax-coated wick, though primitive in means, once served as a reliable measuring device for telling time for many centuries before the invention of the mechanical, wind-up watch, not to mention your digital device. Indeed, the candle clock was once a thing.

For many, it relied on the uniform rate of a wax candle’s burning, using consistently-spaced markings either on the candle or its holder to measure intervals of time. Candle clocks have been used by various cultures across the world for some 1,500 years—perhaps even longer. The device can tell time day or night, no matter how sunny or cloudy the weather. It was a simple substitute for the rooster’s crow or herald’s call.

An illustration of candle and oil lamp clocks. (Nata_Alhontess/Lukasz Szwaj/Shutterstock)
An illustration of candle and oil lamp clocks. (Nata_Alhontess/Lukasz Szwaj/Shutterstock)
The forms of the device vary widely from place to place and across different time periods, but the concept is singular and of primal simplicity: The burning of a wick embedded in wax transpires at a steady pace and is used to indicate passing time periods. Moreover, they can even serve as alarm clocks of sorts. Here is some of the candle clock’s story and a few specimens to illustrate this antiquated yet fascinating time teller.

Candle Clocks Through the Ages

The ancient Egyptians were reportedly among the earliest to utilize candles to measure time. They would light one at sunrise and measure how long it took to burn to a certain point, which enabled them to measure the time of day.
The earliest known reference to the use of candle clocks traces to 520 A.D. in China to a poem by You Jiangu. Record indicates Jiangu employed a device consisting of 6 candles made from 72 pennyweights of wax, each candle being 12 inches long and of uniform thickness. Each candle took four hours to burn and was divided into 12 sections, each an inch long, so each section represented 20 minutes. Similarly, in Asia, candles were used to measure time in Japan until at least the early 10th century.
An example of an antique candle clock in Germany. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kerzenuhr.jpg">Benutzer:Flyout</a>/CC BY-SA 3.0)
An example of an antique candle clock in Germany. (Benutzer:Flyout/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Meanwhile, in Europe, the parallel invention of this device was attributed by the Anglo-Saxons to King Alfred the Great. Alfred’s close associate Asser narrated how the king invented the clock using six candles, each made from 12 pennyweights of wax, each being 12 inches long and of uniform thickness. Like Jiangu, Alfred marked them at one-inch intervals representing 20 minutes each. Burning one after another, they would measure the elapsing of a 24-hour period.

It is said that candle clocks were used throughout the Middle Ages by monks in Europe, who would light candles during prayer ceremonies, to tell them when the ceremony was to be concluded.

One of the most sophisticated candle clocks in existence was devised by Muslim engineer Al-Jazari in 1206, whose device measured not only time but also featured a frontward display dial indicating the times of the day. He devised a fastening mechanism for a wax candle with a weighted pulley system to manage this feat, which was described by English engineer and historian Donald Routledge Hill as follows:

The candle, whose rate of burning was known, bore against the underside of the cap, and its wick passed through the hole. Wax collected in the indentation and could be removed periodically so that it did not interfere with steady burning. The bottom of the candle rested in a shallow-dish that had a ring on its side connected through pulleys to a counterweight. As the candle burned away, the weight pushed it upward at a constant speed. The automata were operated from the dish at the bottom of the candle.

Al-Jazari was also famous for his water-based clock devices which, in addition to telling time, tracked the movements of astrological bodies.

Al-Jazari's candle clock device from 1206 featured a display dial that told time. (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Al-Jazari_-_A_Candle_Clock.jpg">Public Domain</a>)
Al-Jazari's candle clock device from 1206 featured a display dial that told time. (Public Domain)
In America, the candle clock was reportedly used by the colonists as late as the 18th century to measure time periods from dawn until dusk, telling farmers when to call an end to the day’s work.
Now, if all this talk of candles is tempting you to break out a box of waxed wicks from your emergency survival kit—either to kindle a warm mood on a cold winter’s night or perhaps peruse the passing of time—here’s one more candle clock selling point to seal the deal:

Yes, Candle Clocks Can be Used as Alarm Clocks

While your typical digital alarm features annoying electric lights that keep you up at night and harsh, buzzing noises that instill foul moods on waking you each morning, candle clocks present a mellower, more down-to-earth alternative.

It is said a type of candle alarm clock used in ancient Rome involved inserting nails into the wax of a candle at specific intervals. The candle was held by a metal holder, so when the wax reached a certain level the nail would fall and subsequently cause a clattering that would wake the sleeper. Utterly simple.

An illustration of a candle clock. (Nata_Alhontess/Lukasz Szwaj/Shutterstock)
An illustration of a candle clock. (Nata_Alhontess/Lukasz Szwaj/Shutterstock)
A more sophisticated specimen of a candle alarm clock still exists in Italy’s Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan today, though it’s no longer in use. Conceived in the 17th century, this once cutting-edge timepiece features a lock and flint mechanism similar to a pistol and was triggered by a burning candle that caused it to sound at a certain time.
But as wind-up pendulum clocks and pocket watches became ever more prevalent, candle clocks fell into disuse though they were still used up until at least the 18th century. They’re not used at all anymore.
Live demonstration of a candle clock in the morning, with several "alarms" set throughout the day. (The Epoch Times)
Live demonstration of a candle clock in the morning, with several "alarms" set throughout the day. (The Epoch Times)
The candle clock crosses from morning into the afternoon. (The Epoch Times)
The candle clock crosses from morning into the afternoon. (The Epoch Times)

Yet, with our increasingly plugged-in society today making it ever harder to find a moment’s solitude, the soft glow of a flickering flame retains its indelible allure.

What better way is there to get back to basics and return to simpler times than by lighting a candle—whether it be to illuminate your room, warm the mood therapeutically, or indicate the passage of time?

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