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.
Candle Clocks Through the AgesThe 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.
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:
Al-Jazari was also famous for his water-based clock devices which, in addition to telling time, tracked the movements of astrological bodies.
Yes, Candle Clocks Can be Used as Alarm ClocksWhile 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.
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?