CLOSE
Sukenobu via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sukenobu via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

15 Old-Fashioned Ways of Keeping Time

Sukenobu via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sukenobu via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Figuring out the time is easy these days, whether with inexpensive wristwatches or the ubiquitous cell phone clock. But in centuries past, humans had to rely on shadows from the sun, the melting of a candle, or even the varying smells of incense. Here are some examples of antiquated timekeeping, including a few we probably shouldn't bring back.

1. SUNDIAL

iStock

The use of sundials is ancient, with the basic idea being a central gnomon casting a shadow from the sun to mark the passage of time. While the Greeks and Romans installed them throughout cities and the elite had pocket models, more curious examples emerged later on—including a solar cannon sundial from the 19th century that would fire a small gun when the sun's heat concentrated on a lens.

The largest stone sundial in the world, constructed in the early 18th century, is the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. It stretches 73 feet and involves 20 astronomical instruments. Meanwhile the Taipei 101, which was the world's tallest tower from 2004 until it was surpassed by Dubai's Burj Khalifa, also works as a colossal sundial, striking a shadow on a circular park below.

2. MOONDIAL

The 17th century sundial at Queen's College in Cambridge, England, is rather special, as it can also be read as a moondial. Set into a brick wall, it includes a moon-table that connects the phase of the moon to the apparent lunar time based on moonlight, which should help you figure out what time of night it is. The Queen's College website has in-depth detail on how it works.

3. OBELISK

The Luxor Obelisk in Paris. Image credit: iStock

Obelisks aren’t just static monuments, they also have long shadows that are perfect for timekeeping. When Greek philosopher Eratosthenes calculated the Earth's circumference he relied on obelisks, and the knowledge that while one might have no shadow on the Summer Solstice in Syene, another in Alexandria would. In Paris, you can still see an obelisk being used as a sundial: The Luxor Obelisk in the center of the Place de la Concorde aligns its shadow with points on the pavement to show pedestrians the time.

4. WATER CLOCK

The elephant clock from Al-Jazari's manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public domain

A sundial becomes rather useless after sunset, so another ancient timekeeping device emerged. The water clock dates to at least 1500 BCE, the basic principle being a device that uses the reliable flow of water to represent the passing of time. Water clocks appear throughout antiquity, from Egypt to Greece to the Arabic world, and became quite incredible: One 13th century design by Al-Jazari involved a towering water clock on top of a mechanical elephant.

5. INCENSE CLOCK

Dating to the Song dynasty (960-1279), the incense clock spread from China to Japan and other Asian locales. Although each version involved the burning of incense to track time, the system was often different. Sometimes the clock had various colors of smoke to signal the time, others burned to markers or alarms, while a few even involved different incense smells so the user would be olfactorily aware of the passage of time.

6. TIME BALL

Rudolf Stielervia Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Ever watched the Times Square Ball drop on New Year’s Eve? You’re witnessing a rare demonstration of time ball timekeeping, a practice that emerged in the 19th century when large metal or wooden balls would plummet at a certain hour to synchronize navigators’ marine chronometers. The first time ball is considered to have been erected at Portsmouth, England, in 1829; most that followed were also visible from the sea. By the 1920s, radio and other advancements made them obsolete. Although the Times Square version is really just a novelty—no one starts their midnight clock by it—there are still time balls that operate as nostalgic attractions. The time ball at the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London falls each day at 1 p.m., just as it has since 1833.

7. MERKHET

The merkhet is another ancient solution to the sundial's failure at night. Instead of relying just on the sun, it tracked the alignment and visibility of several stars. This "star clock" is known to date to ancient Egypt, and was designed with a long bar and a plumb line, as well as a sighting tool, with which a user could focus on a particular star and use celestial transit as a time marker.

8. NOON CANNON

Similar to a time ball but a lot more cacophonous, the noon cannon is discharged at a specific time (noon) to herald the hour. Like the time ball, it’s also now obsolete. Yet you can still get the time blasted in your ears at Signal Hill in Cape Town, South Africa, where a cannon is shot at precisely noon each day, a tradition dating to the early 1800s; and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a noon gun has fired since 1857.

9. CHURCH BELLS

iStock

Before every household had a clock, communities could keep track of time by listening for the local church bells. The word clock is in fact derived from clocca—Latin for bell—as many of the church clocks that began to be built in the 14th century involved striking bells. If you live near a church that still tolls the hour, you’re getting the time like a medieval person.

10. CLOCK TOWER

State Library of New South Wales via Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Akin to the church bell, the clock tower was a public resource for the time, and also kept the community to the same schedule. Parliament in London might have one of the most famous clock towers with Big Ben, but the basic idea dates back centuries. The 42-foot Tower of the Winds in Athens, constructed around 100-50 BCE, has eight sides that each face a different compass direction, and sundial lines below.

11. HOURGLASS

Wikimedia // Public domain

While the first hourglass is sometimes dated to 8th century France, it’s unclear exactly when this timepiece emerged. The sand clock, as it's also known, really took off in the 14th century, when marine sandglasses were especially common on ships to track time. And that familiarity made them great symbols for the fleetingness of mortal time in art and tombstones, a use that continues to the present.

12. OIL-LAMP CLOCK

Certainly among the more hazardous timepieces, the oil-lamp clock involved a glass reservoir for oil that would lower as it was burned off, indicating the movement of time. These were mostly designed for the steady-burning whale oil, and were a bit like a more flammable hourglass, although their popularity was mostly confined to the 18th century.

13. CONGREVE CLOCK

An invention patented in 1808 by Sir William Congreve, the Congreve clock is an elaborate machine that uses the 15-second roll of a brass ball down a zig-zagging track to move the hands on the timepiece. Over the course of a day, the ball would roll back and forth on the track 5760 times. Unfortunately, as National Museums Scotland points out, it wasn't quite successful, as any bit of dust on the track threw off the ball’s timing.

14. LANTERN CLOCK

Shaped with a basilica-like dome, the lantern clock became popular in 17th century England, the first clock to be common in homes. The brass timepiece operated with interior weights, and happened to emerge alongside a newly established middle class that was interested in keeping its own time, without having to strain their ears for the church bells.

15. CANDLE CLOCK

Al-Jazari's candle clock. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public domain

In the 6th century, Chinese poet You Jiangu described a candle clock in his writing. Like an hourglass or water clock, it relied on the movement of a material to chronicle time, the material here being the melting of wax. Al-Jazari, of the aforementioned elephant clock, designed perhaps the most complicated candle clock in the 14th century, which included a human-shaped automaton on the outside. Due to the unpredictability of melting, the candle clock was not incredibly reliable, a fact that perhaps saved many homes from going up in flames.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
arrow
olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios