What’s on Tab: A Timepiece for Every Fantasy

For two weeks now, I’ve been laboring to collect my random thoughts to publish my first blog posts, and now, thoughts only vaguely collected, I think it’s just time to take the plunge. (Pardon me, pun in progress.) Why has it taken me so long? Well, namely because this (see below) is what I live with. This is one of three browser windows I currently have open on my computer with tabs in the thirties or forties, but who keeps count really?

The Labors of My Computer

My poor computer is asked to work under very strenuous conditions. It never rests unless it decides to forcibly shut itself down overnight to install updates, only for me to anxiously wake it next morning and hit “restore tabs” like someone trying to flush drug paraphernalia down the toilet with the cops at the door. I breathe a sigh of relief, and my computer heaves another groan of anguish. And this doesn’t even cover the browser tabs open on my phone.

But never mind the labors of my digital devices. We’re here to talk fantasy, something I’ve always been passionate about. Whether reading, writing, or watching, nothing hooks me like a good fantasy story. And what better place to start than by adventuring into the realm of forgotten browser tabs, where world-building tidbits are unearthed and then left to linger on sadly existing in the background until I need them? And what better topic than one which I’m obviously so adept at managing?


(Yes, yes, you mutter to yourself, unimpressed.)

Since I’m fine-tuning the first book of my fantasy series, I’ve been researching methods of telling time under different circumstances as this question recently came up. Telling time is going to have different significance under different circumstances, and certain timekeeping may be possible here and impossible there. Time for a subterranean species may be impossible altogether, not to mention fairly meaningless with no sun or moon to differentiate days or to provide growing seasons. Whereas, for a surface-dwelling agrarian society, time could be the difference between planting crops too early or too late. Meanwhile, in a magical academy, seasons may be of some mild background importance, but knowing the time down to the minute will be pretty essential to keeping your scholarly hero from wracking up demerits for tardiness.

So to simplify things, here’s a list of various real-world methods of timekeeping plus whatever interesting info I could find:


Famous sundial at Glamis Castle, Angus, Scottland, built in 1670s

Ah, the old classic. These guys are the original clock, used by various cultures throughout the ages. The first known sundials were prevalent in ancient Egypt, ancient Babylon, and parts of Russia as far back as 1500 BC and stayed relevant up about the 1840s, until clocks became more accurate. Rarely can you ever go wrong with a sundial in the world of fantasy—they instantly bespeak a different age and can provide whatever aesthetic you want from the simple sundials of the late Bronze Age to the massive stone sundials of Ancient China to the specially curved (and more accurate) sun dials of the Medieval Middle East to more decorative (and not always accurate) Scottish sundials of the Renaissance period. The only drawback to sundials is that you do, in fact, need the sun for them to work.

Also I know we always think of sundials as being useful for breaking down the day into hours, but no one says it has to be hours. You can break it down to whatever unit of time you like. In ancient Europe, they actually had tide dials or scratch dials, which marked canonical hours (aka, prayer times). Maybe your society likes to divide its day into thirds! Maybe your magic students live in Ancient Greece and they have a huge courtyard sundial that marks time in terms of a uniform class schedule!

For your nocturnal societies, there are even moondials, which function similarly to sundials with a little more inaccuracy. Moondials only tell accurate time during the full moon, running a bit (as in like 50ish minutes) fast during the waxing phase and a bit bit slow during the waning phase. It all equals out though, right? (It doesn’t.)

Moondial in Parc de la Feixina in Palma de Mallorca, Baleares, Spain
Time period: 1500 BC to 1840s AD
Other fun names: shadow clocks, day-markers, tide dials, mass dials, moondials

Water Clock

Ancient Persian water clock, Qanats of Gonabad, Zibad, Iran

Water clocks are actually the other original clock that no one ever seems to think about. These nifty little timepieces were also in use in 1500s BC in Babylon, Egypt, Persia, though some claim the Chinese used water clocks as early as 4000 BC. In its basic form, a water clock simply measures a regulated flow of liquid into or out of a vessel, the markings on the vessel indicating intervals of time. While perhaps not the most accurate of timepieces (as water can flow at different rates depending on the temperature), they were usually reset every day, which minimized any losses or gains in time (although I hardly think anyone from the 5th century much cared or noticed if the clock was off by 30 minutes). Their real advantage was that they could keep up with time at night and during overcast days unlike Mr. Sundial.

And while water clocks may sound like a couple of lame bowls with scratches on them, they could be pretty intricate, many using water wheels and complicated gear and pulley systems, float chambers, and flow regulators. This is quickly pushing my non-mechanical brain out of its depths. Later water clocks were so fancy some rang bells or had moving figurines or even powered clock towers. But wait! They could also be conveniently portable! A physician in 200 BC was known to have a portable water clock, which he used to calculate heartrates in his patients.

Water clock tower built by Su Sung, 1090

Honestly, no one says a water clock HAS to use water either. Even the Chinese experimented with different mediums, from sand to liquid mercury, trying to perfect its accuracy. As long as it flows at a steady rate, it should be able to tell time water-clock-style. Also, they seemed less popular in Europe outside of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which gains the water clock personal pointers from me for providing a little variety from the European Middle Age vibe that’s become so intrenched in the fantasy genre.

Time period: 1500s BC to 1300s AD
Other fun names: clepsydra


German half-hour sandglass, ca. 1500-25

Or hourglass. But I like sandglass, sounds more appropriate, though I guess they didn’t always hold sand. In fact, various mediums including powdered marble, rock flour, mercury, and even crushed burnt eggshells (wtf?) were used in sandglasses. You do have to be a little careful not to get illogically creative with mediums though as the shape and size of the medium will affect its rate of flow. Although standard sandglasses did actually run exactly an hour’s time, they could be crafted to run at different increments of time, giving rise to sets of sandglasses each marking different time intervals.

17th century Italian four-way hour glass with brass stand

Sandglasses became incredibly useful in early seafaring, becoming a common tool of a ship’s crew by the 1300s. Other types of clocks had major disadvantages for telling time at sea. Sundials were useless at night and in overcast skies. Water clocks and even the more modern weight-and-pendulum mechanical clocks were useless because of the motion of the ship, so sandglasses were used as the mighty seafarer’s favorite timepiece up until the invention and development of the marine chronometer in the early 1800s. Sailors used a watch sandglass as opposed to the standard sandglass to keep time in half-hours instead of hours. They also kept a special 30-second sandglass called the log sandglass, which was used to calculate ship speed by throwing a knotted rope overboard and counting the time between knots (which is where we get actual nautical knots from).

Sandglass and chip-log used by 16th century sailors, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Other fun names: hourglass, watch glass, log glass
Time period: 700 AD to 1800 AD

Candle Clock

A German candle clock

It’s a candle, and it’s also a clock, which makes for great time-keeping at night while your sundials are down. Usually, they were kept in a protective frame or case to keep, you know, a giant gust of wind from blowing them out. Marks were made either on the candle itself or on the case to indicate time intervals as the candle burned at a steady rate anywhere from 4 hours to a full 24 hours. Sometimes, nails were stuck in the candles at certain intervals so that when the wax burned away, the nails clattered to the bottom of the case, thus acting as one of the first alarm clocks. Wonder how many people blamed the wind for not waking them up on time. There was actually a famously complex candle clock built in 1206 by a mechanical engineer from the Middle East, who implemented a weight-and-pulley system and a modern forward-facing dial.

Time period: 520 AD to 1400s AD
Other fun names: it's a candle, and it's a clock

Oil-Lamp Clock

18th century oil-lamp clock

Not a widely used method of measuring time, the oil-lamp clock is like if you combined a water clock with a candle clock, only with oil. Basically, it was a tall oil lamp with markings to denote time intervals as the oil burned away at a constant rate. Really it seemed to only be used in the mid-18th century and has absolutely no other interesting facts about it. Moving on…

Time period: mid-1700s
Other fun names: none, none at all

Incense Clock

Chinese powdered incense clock

If you’re thinking incense clocks are from Asia, you’d be right. They’ve been a popular timekeeping device throughout India, China, Japan, and Korea since the 900s AD, being used both in temples and homes. There are two different types of incense clocks: stick incense clocks and powdered incense clocks. Stick incense clocks used, you guessed it, incense sticks, which were marked at certain time intervals and lit to burn at a steady rate. You could either incorporate different fragrances to be released at the different time intervals, which sounds really pleasant, or you could attach weights to the intervals for them to drop loudly onto a gong or platter as the incense stick burned away, which sounds like another type of morning alarm. Meanwhile, the powdered incense clock was a wooden or stone disk with grooves to hold powdered incense. The powdered incense was burned and emitted different fragrances at different intervals, very pleasant. These types of incense clocks could burn anywhere from 12 hours to a whole month. Incense clocks remained popular in Asia for a long time because they were just so damn economical and functional. Even as mechanical clocks became available in the 1600s, they were largely unaffordable to most people, save society’s wealthiest so incense clocks persisted into the modern era. As late as 1924, an incense clock was being used in Japan as an employee time clock to calculate a geisha’s work hours.

Chinese incense stick clock or fire clock, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Time period: 500 AD to late 1900s
Other fun names: stick incense clock vs powdered incense clock


Mariner’s Astrolabe, Portuguese, 1645, by Nicholao Ruffo, The Mariners’ Museum

Think you’ve seen some fancy timepieces? Well think again. Nothing gets fancier than the astrolabe, which was once noted in the 1100s as having over a thousand different uses. It can chart stars. It can calculate latitude. It can keep the time. The amazing astrolabe does it all! For real though, the astrolabe was used to plot the position the sun, stars, planets, and moon in order to calculate latitude and time, mainly for navigational purposes more than anything. It generally consisted of two discs, one representing Earth and the other representing the celestial bodies at a certain latitude from the Earth’s surface. In the most basic of explanations, one would find a celestial body, line it up with the astrolabe’s sighting device, and correspond it to the discs to determine the time of day. The astrolabe’s many uses credits it for leading to the invention of the astronomical clock, the lunar calendar, and the sextant and is, I must say, very pretty to look at. There’s even a Swiss watchmaker who still makes astrolabe watches today, just fyi.

Time period: 120 BC to 1700s AD
Other fun names: its name is fancy enough it doesn't need other names.

Flower Clocks

Hologium florae from the Philosophia Botanica (1751) by Carl Linnaeus

Since you’ve persisted through this history lesson in timekeeping, I’ve decided to reward your patience with the inclusion of the flower clock, or horologium florae if you will, a type of clock based on certain types of flowers which open and close at very precise increments. It was first proposed by the Swedish botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in his book Philosophia Botanica in 1751, where outlined various flowering plants that opened and closed with certain hours of the day. Sadly, Linnaeus never planted his majestic flower clock, nor did anyone else for that matter though many have attempted. Unfortunately, temperature and light vary from region to region, and weather varies by the day, so flower clocks have been little more than a fantasy here in the real world. But we are talking about timekeeping in a fantasy setting, so… *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*

Time period: only in our dreams
Other fun names: not to be confused with floral clocks, which are an altogether different thing

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little segue into timekeeping as I post this my very first post a day later than I intended (ha ha, it’s fine), my own clocks seeming more like traitors to my poor internal sense of time. Researching this topic has provided me some interesting things to consider moving forward as far as how much effort went into building and maintaining and recording time in pre-modern societies. How one tells time and what units of measurement and if one should make their own formal calendars are all questions a lot of fantasy writers ponder over, myself included. Will such things make or break a fantasy novel? Probably not, but everyone enjoys the feeling of a fully crafted world, and I think random details such as these can be important to driving that immersion that makes people so drawn to the fantasy genre in the first place. Hopefully, all this time was well spent, and you gain some inspiration for how your world ticks.

(Nice, capping it off with a clock joke *pats self on back*).

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