Telling time is a lot easier today because of modern technology, which has provided us with an array of timekeeping devices like wristwatches, wall clocks and mobile phones. However, in centuries past, there were no wall clocks or wrist watches. Thus, peoplehad to rely on the natural world around them to keep track of time. Through this article, we will explore some of the key mechanisms ancient Africans created to have a sense of time through-out their days.
Around 3500BC, ancient Egyptians constructed pillars called tekhenu. They were tall, rectangular structures with pointed tops which would cast shadows to help divide the day into sections. They were geographically located at certain points to enable more accurate time-keeping. As the sun moved, the obelisks cast a large shadow on the ground. The path of the shadow could be mapped out with intervals that represented the hours of the day.
Since the obelisk could only be effective during the day, something else had to be created to keep track of time at night. The Egyptians subsequently created the merkhet, which tracked the alignment and visibility of several stars. Known as the “star clock,” the merkhet was designed with a long bar and a plumb line. It also had a sighting tool, which a user could focus on a particular star and use celestial transitto mark the time.
There were also some contraptions called sundials which, although did not help much at night or on cloudy days, were one of the most widespread methods of telling time. The sundials used the sun’s altitude or position to mark daytime hours. They used a slanted, pointed rod called a nodus, which cast shadows along certain points of the dial to indicate hours. During the Renaissance period, sundials evolved into many shapes and types. After the introduction of clocks, sundials were still being referenced to reset clocks because of poor accuracy. The most common sundial is referred to as “gnomon”.
The Water Clock
A water clock uses the flow of water to measure time. There are two types of water clocks; inflow and outflow. In an outflow water clock, a container is filled with water and the water is drained slowly and evenly out of the container. This container has markings that are used to show the passage of time. As the water leaves the container, an observer can see where the water level is with the lines and tell how much time has passed. An inflow dasher water clock works the same way except, instead of the water flowing out of the container, the water is filling up the marked container. As the container fills, the observer can see where the water meets the lines and tell how much time has passed.
The oldest water clock, of which there is physical evidence dates to c. 1417 – 1379 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III, where it was used it the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. The oldest documentation of the water clock is the tomb inscription of the 16th century BC Egyptian court official Amenemhet, which identifies him as its inventor.
The Oil Lamp Clock
Another interesting method for telling time in ancient Africa was the oil lamp clock. This was mostly used during the 18th century but was considered risky by many. It made use of a marked glass reservoir for oil. The oil level would lower as the oil burnt off, thus indicating change in time. They were largely made from whale oil, which was the best lamp oil fuel at the time because it burned very brightly and at a very steady rate, with little smoke.
We can see that the methods ancient Africans used to meticulously tell time were quite interesting and diverse. The modern ways of telling time are still as meticulous, but have thankfully placed greater focus on convenience and ease for the user.