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How Clocks Work

Clocks are made to give precision to our day. They allow us to budget our time, and also to coordinate our activities with others whom we would meet at certain times. If not for clocks how would we know when to go to work or school? How would we know when the play at the theater begins? And most importantly, how would we know when to get home for supper?

Even people's lives depend on clocks, if air traffic controllers could not denote time, there would be many more airplane accidents. Military operations are very dependent on time coordination. Even spies, who must "synchronize their watches", understand that knowing the time is an important matter. But it goes further yet, time regulates computers and robots, satellites and space probes, the internet and a hole host of modern medical devices.

What clocks actually do is measure time. But to understand how they do this, it is first important to understand the nature of time itself. Time can be viewed as nothing more than motion through the three dimensions. This is why it is often called the "4th Dimension". This is reflected in the fact that we measure years by the Earth's orbit around the Sun. The orbit of the moon around the Earth. We measure days by the Earth's revolutions, and our measure of hours minutes and seconds are mere fragments of these greater measurements. All these things involve motion.

All clocks have a couple of requirements. They must first have a power source, a way to create motion. This makes sense as this is part of what time is measuring! Second, they must have a "timebase" that provides a kind of regular oscillation or "heartbeat. Third, they must have, built in, a way to transfer the information generated by the "timebase", and finally they must have a way to display the information or interface with another unit which might use the time measurement in some manner.

There are many kinds of clocks and it is the objective of this website to explain how some of them work. Going through the various clocks is a bit like going through time itself (in an historical fashion). We will begin with the sundial, a somewhat cumbersome, but in its way ingenious and elegant device that was first used by the ancients. First recorded use was about 3500 B.C.

The hour glass was the next innovation. Individual hourglasses were variably accurate, but required considerable attention. They work on the same principle as water clocks which rely on gravity to move some object from a higher to a lower position in a regular fashion. (Water clocks were used in ancient Egypt and Greece.) The hour glass is still used today in the form of the sand timer, at least to poach eggs and to regulate player turns in various games.

Pendulums were a great leap in technology. However, they were quite expensive when first developed. This meant that whole towns used the same clock, mounting it in some high place and rigging it with bells and chimes.

Chronometers were an amazing kind of clock that increased the accuracy of time keeping and made it possible for mariners at sea to fix their position in the ocean, based on lines of latitude and longitude. This technology also made possible the advancement of watches which were basically small chronometers.

From chronometers the next leap in time keeping came when electricity was harnessed and microchips were invented. Digital clocks now could not just tell time, but also assist in the operation of innumerable other devices such as movie recorders, thermostats, and computers.

Atomic clocks have increased the accuracy of time keeping even further. This, however, is a type of clock you won't find in the average home or even on a bell-tower. There are also a variety of other types of clocks powered using some imaginative means.

This website is arranged so that you may get a cursory glance of the topic by reading the above short article. You can drill down on the topic of your choice by clicking a link in the contents above or by making use of the navigation bar near the top of each page. If you would like to read through this site to get "indepth info" on how clocks work, just click through the entire site using the "next page" links at the bottom of each page.

Next Page: How Sundials Work


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