Why do Clocks Run Clockwise?

“Time to get dressed!” cries a harried Mama as she tries to pack the bag, straighten the tie, pack lunch, tie shoelaces as at the same time she pushes children dragging their heels towards the bus stop. Oh? Is it already “Time for school?” later still its “time for dinner” or “time for bed!” Old Father Time can be quite an interfering busybody and there really is nothing we can do. Most of us spend a greater part of our time and lives trying to beat exactly this – time!

Strangely enough the clock’s needles seem to take forever to inch forward during a dull lesson, while time really flies when we are having a good time!

All of us are time conscious. We surround ourselves with alarm clocks, cuckoo clocks, wristwatches, grandfather clocks and peering at them to make sure we are sticking to our schedule. But have you ever taken a moment to wonder why the needles on the face of a clock move the way they do? Why do the hour and minute needles move from left to right (in what is now called the ‘clockwise direction’) and not vice-versa? No, it is not the whim of the inventor actually there is a scientific explanation for this observation.

Throughout history, time has been measured by the movement of the Sun (or, more accurately, the motion of the Earth relative to the Sun). The earliest form of timekeeping dates as far back as 3500 B.C. This was the shadow clock or the sundials – a vertical stick or obelisk (A tall, four-sided shaft of stone, usually tapered and monolithic, that rises to a point) that casts a shadow. An example of this clock can be seen at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.

People had already realised that the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun. So for ages people measured time based on the position of the sun – it was noon when the sun was highest in the sky.

The earliest clocks were invented in China around 100 A.D. based on these earlier sundials, which were simple devices that marked the movement of the sun with the movement of the earth.

Mechanical clocks were invented in the Northern Hemisphere in the 14th century and the inventors naturally wanted the device to follow the sun’s movement in the sky. In the Northern Hemisphere the Sun appears to move in the sky from the left to the right and so the hands of the clock were made to follow the Sun’s motion, moving from left to right or what is commonly known as clockwise. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere and face the South, you can watch the Sun rising on your left (the East) pass overhead and set in the West (at your right).

As simple as that! Come to think of it, if the mechanical clock had been invented in the Southern Hemisphere, the hand on the dial of your watch would have been moving from right to left!

Do you know there are some Jewish and Arabic clocks that run anti-clockwise? This makes perfect sense as Arabic and Hebrew readers (Arabic and Hebrew characters are written right to left) but baffles everyone else!

The clock at the bottom with the Hebrew numbers runs counterclockwise. The one on top with the Roman numerals runs ‘clockwise’. This spire is located in the Old Jewish Town Hall in Josefov, Prague, Czech Republic.