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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

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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

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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.

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A Brief History of Black Friday
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The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season is often referred to as the busiest shopping day of the year. But where did this tradition start and just how big is it? Here are the answers to a few frequently asked questions about Black Friday. Hopefully they'll give you some good talking points tomorrow, when you line up outside Best Buy at 4 a.m.

HOW DID BLACK FRIDAY BECOME SUCH A BIG SHOPPING DAY?

It's hard to say when the day after Thanksgiving turned into a retail free-for-all, but it probably dates back to the late 19th century. At that time, store-sponsored Thanksgiving parades were common, and once Santa Claus showed up at the end of the parade, the holiday shopping season had officially commenced.

In those days, most retailers adhered to an unwritten rule that holiday shopping season didn't start until after Thanksgiving, so no stores would advertise holiday sales or aggressively court customers until the Friday immediately following the holiday. Thus, when the floodgates opened that Friday, it became a huge deal.

SO RETAILERS WERE ALWAYS HOPING FOR AN EARLY THANKSGIVING?

You bet. They weren't just hoping, though; they were being proactive about it. In 1939, the Retail Dry Goods Association warned Franklin Roosevelt that if the holiday season wouldn't begin until after Americans celebrated Thanksgiving on the traditional final Thursday in November, retail sales would go in the tank. Ever the iconoclast, Roosevelt saw an easy solution to this problem: he moved Thanksgiving up by a week. Instead of celebrating the holiday on its traditional day—November 30th that year—Roosevelt declared the next-to-last Thursday in November to be the new Thanksgiving, instantly tacking an extra week onto the shopping season.

BRILLIANT! HOW DID THAT WORK OUT?

Not so well. Roosevelt didn't make the announcement until late October, and by then most Americans had already made their holiday travel plans. Many rebelled and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on its "real" date while derisively referring to the impostor holiday as "Franksgiving." State governments didn't know which Thanksgiving to observe, so some of them took both days off. In short, it was a bit of a mess.

By 1941, though, the furor had died down, and Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, regardless of how it affected the shopping day that would become known as Black Friday.

WHY CALL IT BLACK FRIDAY?

If you ask most people why the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday, they'll explain that the name stems from retailers using the day's huge receipts as their opportunity to "get in the black" and become profitable for the year. The first recorded uses of the term "Black Friday" are a bit less rosy, though.

According to researchers, the name "Black Friday" dates back to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. The Friday in question is nestled snugly between Thanksgiving and the traditional Army-Navy football game that's played in Philadelphia on the following Saturday, so the City of Brotherly Love was always bustling with activity on that day. All of the people were great for retailers, but they were a huge pain for police officers, cab drivers, and anyone who had to negotiate the city's streets. They started referring to the annual day of commercial bedlam as "Black Friday" to reflect how irritating it was.

SO WHERE DID THE WHOLE "GET IN THE BLACK" STORY ORIGINATE?

Apparently store owners didn't love having their biggest shopping day saddled with such a negative moniker, so in the early 1980s someone began floating the accounting angle to put a more positive spin on the big day.

DO RETAILERS REALLY NEED BLACK FRIDAY TO TURN AN ANNUAL PROFIT?

Major retailers don't; they're generally profitable—or at least striving for profitability—throughout the entire year. (A company that turned losses for three quarters out of every fiscal year wouldn't be a big hit with investors.) Some smaller outlets may parlay big holiday season sales into annual profits, though.

IS BLACK FRIDAY REALLY THE BIGGEST SHOPPING DAY OF THE YEAR?

It's certainly the day of the year in which you're most likely to be punched while reaching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but it might not be the busiest day in terms of gross receipts. According to Snopes.com, Black Friday is generally one of the top days of the year for stores, but it's the days immediately before Christmas—when procrastinators finally get shopping—that stores make the serious loot. Black Friday may, however, be the busiest day of the year in terms of customer traffic.

Snopes's data shows the 10-year span from 1993 to 2002, and in that interval Black Friday was never higher than fourth on the list of the year's busiest shopping days by sales volume. In 2003 and 2005 Black Friday did climb to the top of the pile for sales revenue days, but it still gets stiff competition from the week leading up to Christmas, particularly the Saturday right before the big day.

DO PEOPLE REALLY GET INJURED ON BLACK FRIDAY?

Sadly, yes. One of the most tragic Black Friday incidents happened in 2008, when 34-year-old seasonal employee Jdimytai Damour was killed after a crowd of hundreds of people from the approximately 2000 people waiting outside knocked him own and stampeded over his back after the doors opened at 5 a.m. at the Wal-Mart on Long Island, New York.

In 2010 in Buffalo, New York, several shoppers were trampled trying to get into a Target. One of the victims, Keith Krantz—who was pinned against a metal door support and then shoved to the ground—told a CNN affiliate he thought he would be killed. “At that moment, I was thinking I don't want to die here on the ground,” Krantz said.

In Murray, Utah, 15,000 shoppers swamped a mall with such force, the local police had to respond to break up skirmishes and fistfights, and keep shoppers from ransacking stores.

In 2008, a fight broke out between a young girl and a man at another Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, over a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television. It was $798, marked down from $1000. The New York Times reported that the not-so-aptly-named Nikki Nicely, 19, leaped onto a fellow shopper’s back and began pounding his shoulders violently when he attempted to purchase the television. “That’s my TV!” shouted Ms. Nicely, who then took an elbow to the face. “That’s my TV!” The fight was broken up by a police officer and security guard. “That’s right,” Nicely cried as her adversary walked away. “This here is my TV!”

HOW CAN THIS KIND OF THING BE AVOIDED?

In an effort to keep a few would-be clients from personal injury law firms, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created a special checklist for retailers expecting large crowds.

So what’s OSHA’s advice? Consider using bullhorns. Hire a team of police officers. Be prepared for “crowd crushing” and “violent acts.” Set up barricades. And, above all else, if charging shoppers come running, stay out of the way.

Haley Sweetland Edwards contributed to this story, portions of which originally appeared in 2009.

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Pop Culture
A Speedy History of the Hess Truck
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Hess Corporation

Unless you know someone crazy about air fresheners or caffeine pills, holiday gifts purchased at gas stations don’t usually provoke much excitement. But if you were one of the millions who grew up in the northeast, the annual release of the Hess toy truck at Hess gas stations—usually green, always labeled with a Hess logo, always boxed with batteries—was and is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The idea for an affordable, quality children’s toy sold at service stations at thousands of Hess locations in 16 states was courtesy of Leon Hess, the college dropout-turned-fuel magnate who began selling oil door-to-door in 1933 and graduated to gas stops by 1960. Hess decided he would trump the cheap merchandise given away by gas stations—mugs, glassware—by commissioning a durable, feature-heavy toy truck modeled after the first oil tanker he ever bought for his company. Unlike most toys of the era, it would have headlights that really worked and a tank that kids could either fill up or drain with water.

Most importantly, Hess insisted it come with batteries—he knew the frustration suffered by kids who tore into a holiday present, only to discover they’d have to wait until it had a power source before it could be operated.

The Hess Tanker Truck went on sale in 1964 for $1.29 and sold out almost instantly. Hess released the toy again in 1965, and then introduced the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. For the next 50 years, hardly a year went by without Hess issuing a new vehicle that stood up to heavy play and offered quality and features comparable to the “real” toys on store shelves. Incredibly, fathers would wait in line for hours for an opportunity to buy one for their child.

The toy truck became so important to the Hess brand and developed such a strong following that when the company was bought out in 2014 and locations converted to the Speedway umbrella, new owners Marathon Petroleum promised they would keep making the Hess trucks. They’re now sold online, with the newest—the Dump Truck and Loader, complete with working hydraulics and STEM lesson plans—retailing for $33.99. Bigger, better toy trucks may be out there, but a half-century of tradition is hard to replicate.

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