Why Do Some Clocks Use Roman Numeral IIII?

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iStock

Why do some analog clocks with Roman numerals have '4' as 'IV,' while others have 'IIII'? This is one of those questions where no one seems to have a definitive answer, and probably no one ever will. What we do have is a handful of competing theories, some with plenty of holes and others that might just be true. You'll have to pick the one that sounds best to you and roll with it.

Once upon a time, when Roman numerals were used by the actual Roman Empire, the name of the Romans' supreme deity, Jupiter, was spelled as IVPPITER in Latin. Hesitant to put part of the god's name on a sundial or in accounting books, IIII became the preferred representation of four. Of course, IVPPITER wasn't being worshipped much by the time clocks and watches replaced sundials, but clockmakers may have stuck with IIII just for the sake of tradition.

In another blow to the Jupiter theory, subtractive notation—where IV, instead of IIII, represents four—didn't become the standard until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (and the numerals we use now are an even more modern set). It's likely, then, that IIII was used on sundials (and everywhere else) simply because that was the proper numeral to use at the time, and not for fear of divine retribution.

Once subtractive notation came onto the scene and a choice was available, to V or not to V became a question every clockmaker had to answer for themselves. Some adopted the newfangled IV because it was the new standard, but others hung on to the traditional IIII.

IIII might have stuck around because it's easily recognizable as four. IV involves a little math. Yes, it's just one simple subtraction operation, but keep in mind that when subtractive notation really caught on in the Middle Ages, the majority of people weren't literate or numerate. Subtraction was a lot to wrap the head around. On top of that, IV and VI might have been easily confused by the uneducated (likewise with IX and XI, which is why nine was sometimes represented by VIIII).

Using IIII may have also made work a little easier for certain clock makers. If you're making a clock where the numerals are cut from metal and affixed to the face, using IIII means you'll need twenty I's, four V's, and four X's. That's one mold with a V, five I's, and an X cast four times. With an IV, you'd need seventeen I's, five V's, and four X's, requiring several molds in different configurations.

King Louis XIV of France supposedly preferred IIII over IV, perhaps for the same vain reasons Jupiter wouldn't want two letters from his name on a sundial, and so ordered his clockmakers to use the former. Some later clockmakers followed the tradition, and others didn't. The problems here are that this story is told in connection with many other monarchs, and IIII was used also in areas where there was no king with an IV in his title to object to the subtractive notation.

One more reason to use IIII is that it creates more visual symmetry with the VIII opposite it on the clock face than IV does. Using IIII also means that only I is seen the first four hour markings on the, V is only seen in the next four markings, and X is seen only in the last four markings, creating radial symmetry. As we learned last year when pondering why display clocks are often set to 10:10, symmetry goes a long way in the clock world.

10 Strange Items the TSA Found in People's Luggage in 2018

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iStock.com/AzmanL

Every year, the TSA screens about 700 million travelers across nearly 450 airports. That’s more than 2 million passengers each day. And while most people pass through security checkpoints without incident, a handful of travelers are stopped every day—sometimes for attempting to lug some truly bizarre items to their departing gate.

Thanks to the TSA’s Webby-winning Instagram account—made famous by the agency’s late social media guru Bob Burns, who passed away in October—officials have kept track of the wackier things airport security agents saw in 2018.

1. A Python in a Hard Drive

A traveler bound for Barbados apparently thought it was a good idea to reenact Snakes on a Plane when they socked this ball python into a nylon stocking, hiding it inside an external hard drive. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service swooped in to take the critter.

2. A Fake Bomb

It might resemble something Wile E. Coyote would have concocted—and it may be 100 percent fake—but it’s still not allowed through security at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Anything that remotely resembles a weapon will cause intense security checks. (In this case, the security checkpoint was closed for 19 minutes, inconveniencing countless passengers.)

3. Firecrackers

Please excuse this brief announcement: Don’t carry firecrackers—or anything else that goes "boom"—in your hand luggage. Especially a brand that has the word “Killer” in it.

4. Wedding-Themed Hand Grenades

We’ll let the TSA's Instagram account explain why these are a bad idea: “When our officers spot a potential explosive on the monitor, they cannot just open the bag and take a looksee to find out if it’s real or not. A TSA explosives specialist or a police department bomb squad must respond before the bag is ever opened. This can lead to costly evacuations, delays, and missed flights. These types of items can also lead to hefty fines and arrest. Contact your preferred shipper about your options, because they can’t travel via commercial aircraft. So even though they aren’t real, they can cause a lot of headaches.”

5. Freddy Krueger’s Hand

There is no loophole around the TSA’s knife policy: You may not bring any knives in your carry-on. You especially can’t bring them if they’re affixed to your fingertips. As the TSA elaborates, “While worn out fedoras and tattered green and red sweaters are discouraged in the fashion world, they are permitted at TSA checkpoints.” (You may stow a knife in your checked luggage.)

6. Giant Scissors

Unlike knives, scissors are allowed in your carry-on luggage—as long as they are shorter than four inches from the fulcrum. These ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors found at Nashville International Airport didn’t make the cut.

7. A Phony IED

This fake improvised explosive device caused six checkpoint lanes to close at Newark Liberty International Airport. The TSA later learned that “the man carrying the IED in his carry-on bag was traveling to Florida to participate in a training event focused on X-ray detection of explosive devices.” Thankfully, the agents already had their training.

8. Bullet-Shaped Whiskey Stones

It’s OK to transport a gun and ammunition on a flight as long as it’s properly stored in checked luggage. But placing it in your carry-on is a big no-no. In 2017, the TSA discovered nearly 4000 firearms at security checkpoints—most of them loaded—and that number is expected to rise when 2018’s numbers are finally tabulated. To say the least, the TSA is strict when it comes to anything that remotely resembles a weapon. That’s why these ammunition-shaped whiskey stones (usually used to chill a drink without watering it down) weren’t allowed.

9. An Inert Mortar Round

People try to bring inert weapons of war, like this mortar found at Evansville Regional Airport, through the security checkpoint more than you think. (Case in point: Somebody tried bringing rocket launchers through Hawaii’s Lihue Airport.) When security officials spot something like this, they have to bring in explosives experts to ensure the device is actually inert. Delays ensue. So just leave your faux bombs at home.

10. A Live Cat

There are proper ways to transport your pet to your destination. Haphazardly stuffing your furry friend into your checked luggage is not one of them. At Erie International Airport, a security screener discovered this kitty (named Slim) stowed in a Florida couple's checked baggage. Slim was turned over to the Humane Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania. The couple, meanwhile, was charged with animal cruelty.

To see our 2017 roundup of the TSA’s strangest finds, click here.

What Did This Feature Say About You According to 19th Century Pseudoscience?

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