Did you know that water clocks – as in, timekeeping devices driven by water – were apparently commercially produced and in common use across Europe in the eighteenth century? I certainly had no idea, until I came across this one tucked unobtrusively into a case in a corner of the Science Museum’s Measuring Time gallery:
Water clocks, known as clepsydrae from the Greek for “to steal water” or “water thief,” are among the very oldest of all timekeeping instruments, with a wide variety of designs utilized by multiple cultures across geographies and time. Clepsydrae of a compartmented cylinder design are known to have existed as early as the thirteenth century in Islam-influenced Spain, but more likely go back at least a thousand years earlier than that, perhaps to India or China, and have appeared in various eras and locations, each time reemerging as a “new” invention. The clepsydra in the Science Museum is a compartmented cylindrical clepsydra of a type known as the “falling-drum,” whose main period of use, between the late 1690s and the early- to mid-1800s, overlaps intriguingly with a particularly exciting era of innovations in clockmaking when a series of refinements meant that mechanical clocks and watches could attain levels of precision never before available.
A very curiosity-piquing challenge to investigating these objects is that the vast majority of scholarly technological commentary in the early modern period – even among those works produced when the use of falling-drum clepsydrae would have been at its height – make little or no mention of them. This creates the possibility that the apparently widespread production and consumption of these objects in the eighteenth century represents a rupture in the common treatment of the historical narrative of the development of timekeeping devices.
I spent several months earlier this year researching and writing on this topic, and I’ve come up with some ideas about who may have been interested in these objects and why, but continued research will be necessary to form a clearer picture of why the falling-drum clepsydra came into common use when it did, who was producing these objects, who was buying them, exactly how they were being used, why and when they fell out of use again, and – most challengingly – why and how a seemingly broad range of the population of Europe could keep clepsydrae in their homes for over a century and yet rarely ever write about them.
Silence is golden?
The overarching theme of the narrative of mechanical horology has traditionally been, not unreasonably, the quest for greater timekeeping precision under all possible circumstances. If at first glance it seems completely nonsensical that the demand for hydraulic timepieces would rise during a period of such great advancements in mechanical timekeeping precision, then perhaps that means we need to look beyond this traditional historiography to other possible design drivers – for example, the sensory experience of using and living with timepieces.
The overwhelming characteristic of early modern falling-drum clepsydrae, mentioned repeatedly by those few who cared to write about their experiences with the device, was its total silence while in operation – a dramatic difference from the loud ticking that was the unavoidable byproduct of most early modern clockwork escapements. This interest in silence, I think, provides a clue to understanding why people would be interested in these objects, as in the story of the night clock created by the Italian Campani brothers in 1656 for Pope Alexander VII – perhaps a crucial step toward the eventuality of commercially produced falling-drum clepsydrae. The Pope asked for the invention of “a clock that operated silently at night, yet at the same time permitted the hour to be read without the necessity of striking a light.” Pietro Tommaso Campani describes how the brothers (but mostly owing to himself) chose, for its silence, a mercury-driven compartmented cylinder design, with a small oil lamp attached to the inner back of the clock case to provide illumination to a perforated clock face.
The Pope was very publicly thrilled with his new night clock, and within that same year the Campanis received orders for their design from royalty and nobility throughout Europe. The night clock, as popularized by the Campani brothers, attained a peak of popularity during the last quarter of the seventeenth century; though the ornate cases and dials of their clocks remained predominantly unchanged throughout their careers, in their later clocks the compartmented cylinder was eventually replaced with a pendulum and an innovative friction-tight fly whose rotation kept the mechanism in constant motion without any ticking sound. Night clocks (and, presumably, the bedrooms in which they were placed) were often the casualties of fire, due to the open flames inside their heavy wooden cases, and so unfortunately proportionately very few of these night clocks – and seemingly none of the earlier mercury-driven variety – survive.
By the end of the seventeenth century, night clocks with open flames inside began to lose in popularity to clocks designed with a repeat mechanism, with which a clock owner could pull a cord at the side of the clock case, causing the clock to “repeat” the striking of the most recent time – thereby obviating the necessity of having a lighted clock face. Clocks, being entirely handmade by highly skilled craftsmen, were beyond the financial reach of the majority of the population during the early modern period – especially such luxuriously decorated clocks as those made by the Campani brothers and the new repeater models – but the utility and desirability of silent night clocks had clearly been recognized.
In 1696 the mathematics professor Monsieur Ozanam described the first falling-drum clepsydra to be seen in Paris in 1693, brought from its place of manufacture at Sens in Burgundy:
‘This Clock is liable to the change of Air, i.e. its Driness or Humidity, as well as other Clocks; but it has this conveniency that it makes no noise, and so do’s not disturb one in the Night, and when one wakes the Hours may be distinguish’d by little Buttons or Pegs fix’d upon ‘em.’
A Variety of Makers
The pewterer M. Salmon’s 1788 work entitled L’Art Du Potier D’Étain [The Art of the Pewterer] provides the strongest evidence for the reality of commercial production of falling-drum clepsydrae. M. Salmon stated that by the time of his writing, pewterers at Sens had been producing clepsydrae commercially for the general public for roughly a century; and even went so far as to add that these clepsydrae were a principal item of commerce both at Sens and at Chartres.
L’Art Du Potier D’Étain includes a very intriguing engraving depicting the interior of a pewterer’s shop, showing craftsmen in the process of constructing falling-drum clepsydrae. The illustration also includes detailed drawings of individual parts of cylinder drums and alarm mechanisms, as well as assembled clepsydrae.
Beyond these possible major commercial production sites, several types of falling-drum clepsydrae were being produced and sold by a diversity of craftsmen in a variety of European locations, both urban and more rural. The development and making of falling-drum clepsydrae appears to have been primarily the province of pewterers, but it seems that the market for these objects grew so rapidly and became so large that tin-plate makers and clockmakers were producing them as well. According to a rare print advertisement, it appears that a watch and clockmaker in Paris obtained a royal patent for these devices in 1693, produced them alongside his other stock, and sold them at his establishment. Surely this was not the only professional clockmaker, in Paris or elsewhere, to produce clepsydrae alongside regular stock; however, this and its attendant issues will require further investigation.
A Variety of Models, A Variety of Materials… A Variety of “Sorts”?
Falling-drum clepsydrae were produced in a wide variety of models, which had in common their silence in operation: the very simplest, in which the hour numerals are noted vertically down a wooden frame; models containing both vertical notations and clock dials; versions like the English Finchett model, that do away with a frame entirely and are hung on the wall, with the cylinder drum suspended below the clock dial; a variant in which the drum operates on an inclined plane with the notations marked on the side, appropriate for a mantelpiece; or small models with their mechanisms contained entirely inside their cases. All of these models contained, or had the option to be fitted with, mechanisms to further their convenience for use at night, including wake-up alarms, a softly illuminated dial such as those utilized in the Finchett model, or more simple “buttons and pegs” such as those mentioned by M. Ozanam that would allow the user to perceive the time in the dark by sense of touch.
The compartmented cylinder drum itself was most often made of pewter, tin, or copper or brass lined with tin; all of these choices would help to prevent any corrosion from water. The other components of the device could be chosen from a broad range of materials and decorative techniques of varying levels of luxury and expense.
The falling-drum clepsydra has often been characterized as “inexpensive;” one M. Graverol, writing in France in 1691, enthused that the cheap cost of producing clepsydrae would put clockmakers out of business. However, without information about how much the various models of clepsydrae would have cost relative to geared clocks, and relative to the annual income of differing groups of society, grasping exactly what is to be comprehended by this characterization remains problematic. Clepsydrae, though simpler in principle than mechanical clocks, were handmade by skilled craftsmen, and so therefore most likely could not have been so very “cheap.” Nevertheless, it can certainly be understood that clepsydrae were still much less expensive to produce than the mechanical clocks that were out of the reach of a majority of the population until the nineteenth century. The silent operation of falling-drum clepsydrae would have made them appealing to all sorts in the eighteenth century; but the variety of models available, and the range of cost of materials to construct them with, may have allowed the falling-drum clepsydra to become accessible to a much broader range of consumers than mechanical clocks.
Maintenance at Home
Yet another attraction of early modern falling-drum clepsydrae was the fact that they seem to have required shockingly little or no maintenance on the part of the user to remain in good working order. In fact, it seems that the compartmented cylinders of many clepsydrae never needed to be opened or refilled at all. In a brief article in Mechanics Magazine dated 1824, the owner of a Finchett clepsydra recalls:
‘When a boy, about forty years ago, I had the curiosity to make a fine pin hole in the barrel, to find out if it contained quicksilver; but I was disappointed, for I found nothing but a tasteless and colorless liquor, like water. I closed it up, and it does not appear to have lost any of its substance in quantity or weight ever since.’
Even more incredibly, the clockmaker John H. Wilding, when engaging in research to build a working replica of a falling-drum clepsydra for the Science Museum in London in 1964, discovered that the compartmented cylinder of the Science Museum’s model – which, remember, was made c. 1700 – had never been opened. According to museum staff, apart from being wound every day, the clepsydra had never needed any further attention.
The early modern falling-drum clepsydra was a reliable, reasonably accurate, nearly maintenance-free, and comparatively economically accessible device. When viewed from this perspective, it is no longer surprising that there could have been a commercial market for such an object at such a time. Eventually, however, the falling-drum clepsydra did fall out of widespread use in Europe, apparently once and for all. Historiographically speaking, the falling-drum clepsydra declined with the same silence with which it operated, and I am still looking into a plausible combination of factors for its disappearance.
This comparative paucity of historiographical commentary and nearly complete (with just a few very notable exceptions) lack of surviving contemporary advertisements or other definitive documentation of the production of these objects create the concern of how to approach thinking and writing about this scarcity and all that it may or may not imply. This case demonstrates an example of both the opportunities and challenges involved with using objects as archive: the objects and their designs are here, but what does it mean about how these objects have been perceived both in their own time and since if very little has been directly written about them?
Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: email@example.com
Emily Aleev-Snow –
Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.
© Emily Aleev-Snow 2013. All Rights Reserved