The Plot Thickens:
Design Links Between Falling-Drum Clepsydrae and Early Modern Japanese Pillar Clocks?

Emily Aleev-Snow



If you saw my last post on eighteenth century falling-drum clepsydrae, you will know that it is absolutely not a plot that needs any further thickening…but I’m going to do it anyway with this Japanese pillar clock:

Pillar Clock, Japan, c. 19th C, British Museum, Museum no. 1975,1202,1. Image British Museum

Pillar Clock, Japan, c. 19th C, British Museum, Museum no. 1975,1202,1. Image © British Museum, London.

To briefly recap: Water clocks are based on a very old compartmented cylinder design, known as falling-drum clepsydrae, appear to have been commercially produced at several locations across Western Europe from the last decade of the seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century. I hypothesized that – despite the eighteenth century being a period of exciting innovation for mechanical horology – the notably silent operation of clepsydrae made them attractive for use at night, and the variety of materials from which clepsydrae could be produced may have made them more economically accessible to a broader range of society than mechanical clocks. However, much remains to be investigated as to why these objects may have come into common use at that time, who was making them, who was buying them, how they were being perceived and used, and what ultimately caused them to fade out of use.

Falling-drum clepsydra, English, c. 1690-1710, Science Museum, Image Science Museum, London.

Falling-drum clepsydra, English, c. 1690-1710, Science Museum, Image © Science Museum, London.

Pillar clocks were produced in Japan at least from the seventeenth century, or possibly earlier, until at least the late nineteenth century. Unlike water-driven clepsydrae, pillar clocks are purely mechanical clocks, but they operate on an extremely similar principal to the falling-drum clepsydra with a weight usually controlled by a verge escapement and foliot standing in for the compartmented cylinder drum. Just as with the falling-drum clepsydra, the notations for the hours are displayed vertically on the frame of the clock, and a pointer attached to the weight extends out to indicate the hour as the weight slowly descends.[1]

Could this all be just a coincidence? Well, I guess it could be, maybe. However, with such apparently promising links, both visual and in working principle, it seems worth-while (and more fun) to consider the Japanese pillar clock as a compelling example of the very exciting potential for the continuing inquiry into the history of the transmission, production and consumption of the falling-drum clepsydra design.

The pillar clock was one of several timepiece designs being produced in Japan over this time period, and is generally referred to in most horological surveys as one means of many through which Japanese craftsman sought to devise accurate timepieces to work with the Japanese unequal hour system that persisted into the early 1870s, in which the daylight and nighttime periods were each divided into six equal hours that would then lengthen or shorten in relation to the seasons.

Another early modern Japanese clock design, built on a different principle from the pillar clock. Lantern Clock, Japan, 1692, British Museum. Museum no. 1985,1006,2030, Image British Museum, London.

Another early modern Japanese clock design, built on a different principle from the pillar clock. Lantern Clock, Japan, 1692, British Museum. Museum no. 1985,1006,2030. Image © British Museum, London.

Though it has been noted that the design of the pillar clock is quite unlike the other types of clocks being constructed in Japan[2] in the early modern period, this exposition is usually presented without much reflection as to where, how, why, when, and by whom the design was transmitted to Japan and began to be developed by Japanese crafts-men. If this conjecture about possible design links between falling-drum clepsydrae and Japanese pillar clocks is sound, what sort of need or market niche would this design have fulfilled? Pillar clocks, unlike most falling-drum clepsydrae, virtually always con-tained striking-work,[3] so it seems that the pillar clock may have been desired for very different reasons from the silent clepsydrae; and it must be a different, yet-to-be-considered aspect of the design that led to its reemergence in early modern Japan.

A thorough investigation of these intriguing questions is complicated by the very long and wide-ranging history of this design, as it has continually resurfaced at different points across Afro-Eurasia since the thirteenth century, and is very likely at least a thousand years older than that. So when and through whom might the design have reached Japan? Considering how long this design has been floating around, if the pillar clock is indeed a cousin of the falling-drum clepsydra, it could be a very distant one, many times removed.

Another complication is the exceedingly problematic historiography dealing with interactions between Japan and the rest of the world. Issues with this historiography include, but are not limited to: Eurocentric judgements about what is “early” as opposed to “primitive” and “superior” as opposed to “backward;” a European characterization, persisting into the mid-twentieth century, of the Japanese as possessing an “innate imitative ability,”[4] rather than creativity; a preoccupation with interactions between Europe and Japan – with Europe generally cast as the provider of technology and Japan as the beneficiary – without giving equal attention to interactions within the Asian regions and Japan’s own very proactive participation in these interactions; an overestimation of how “closed” Japan had been to global trade during the Edo period (1603-1868);[5] and a comparative lack of commentary on these matters from the Japanese perspective. Even many very wonderfully executed treatments of a history of technology in Japan take up the story quite late, often beginning with the seventeenth century at the earliest, making it all the more difficult to search for earlier appearances of the falling-drum clepsydra design.

Despite these logistical challenges, however, it is very exciting at least to speculate that the Japanese pillar clock may be just one of many unexplored design links that might be found, across many cultures and eras, to the falling-drum clepsydra.



[1] F. A. B. Ward, Science Museum: Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection Illustrating Time Measurement (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1966), p. 51.

[2] Welch’s phrasing of this is particularly interesting, when thinking about design links to the falling-drum clepsydra: “…a clock was built which did not conform to any European type.” Welch, Kenneth F., Time Measurement: An Introductory History (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1972), p. 108.

[3] David Thompson describes the ingenious striking-work of the pillar clock: “ The time indicators, arranged vertically down the dial, have long studs at the back and the driving weight, which descends inside the case, is the striking mechanism. As it passes behind a particular hour indicator, it will be released by the projecting stud to strike the appropriate hour.” David Thompson, Clocks (London: The British Museum Press, 2004), p. 144.

[4] Welch Kenneth F., Time Measurement: An Introductory History, (Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1972), p. 108 

[5] Timon Screech, The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan: the Lens Within the Heart (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 9


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:


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

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