Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise?

We live in a culture completely obsessed with time: What? Is it Monday already? Phew, only one more hour till I can leave work. Happy hour is still on! The weekend is here! Time governs our lives, our activities and, to some extent, our emotions.

As with many things, we give very little thought to the finer details of this phenomenon. There are questions to be asked. When did the concept of time originate? Who was the first person to start ruminating on the subject of time and why? What would life be like without the concept of time?

While a few of the questions may take more than a little time and thoughtful meditation to come to a conclusion on, some are more easily answered.

The question, for instance, of “why do clocks run clockwise?” is rather simply answered.

The History of Clocks

Time was, in the earlier civilizations, measured by the movement of the sun across our sky – or, more correctly, the earth turning in a circle about the sun. From about the 2nd millennium B.C., the first sundial was used. Sundials used the position and length of a shadow made by a stick to deduce a fairly straightforward estimate of the time. However, this was not a precise way to measure time, due to the sun’s path across the sky changing with the seasons.

There were other methods used over time such as the water clock, which turned out, in practice, not to actually work as intended, as the flow of water could not be controlled to perfection. The hourglass also made its appearance and remained quite a long-standing fixture in the time-measuring world.

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However, it was only around 100 A.D. that the first actual clocks were invented in China. A Buddhist monk built a thirty-foot high tower clock that used pop-out figures and bells to announce the hours of the day.

Why Do Clocks Do Clockwise?

The first versions of mechanical clocks were originally invented in the 14th century in the Northern Hemisphere. It was not on a whim that the inventors decided the hands should move clockwise; rather they decided that the device should follow the direction of the sun’s progress across the sky.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun moves in the sky in a left to right direction – known to us today as clockwise. If you happen to be in the Northern Hemisphere, facing South, you will be able to see the sun rise on your left (as we all know it rises in the East) and pass over you to sink below the horizon on your right (consequently, setting in the West).

If you think about it; it’s really only because clocks were invented in the Northern Hemisphere that we have clocks with clockwise-moving hands. If clocks had been invented in the Southern Hemisphere, the hands of the clock would move anti-clockwise as the sun moves from right to left in that hemisphere.

Cultural Differences?

Apparently, some Jewish and Arabic clocks have hands that move anti-clockwise due to Hebrew and Arabic characters being written – and consequently read – from right to left. While this would baffle the rest of the world, it works perfectly well for them.

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Video: Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise?

Pretty much everyone knows that if you’re asked to pass something clockwise around a table, you hand it to the person on your left because that is the same direction that the hands of a clock move.

What you may not know is that this standard direction is a function not only of timekeeping, but the Earth’s rotation and the happy accident that much of human civilization evolved in the Northern Hemisphere.

Watch this fun educational video to learn more!