Origin of "Clockwise"

Don’t ask why, but this question just popped into my head and I thought that I would seek the opinion of other Dopers.

I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to this question but I googled “origin of clockwise”. I came up with the basis of movement that is defined as clockwise is the direction that a shadow (or sundial) follows in the Northern hemisphere?

Any definitive proof to this or other theories concerning its origin?

I can’t help on the origin aspect, but I have seen ads for, and an IRL example of a “counterclock.” There’s one in the barber shop where I go. You can tell correct time by looking at it in the mirror.

It seems to make some level of sense that clock designers of the first clocks would have had something to use as a standard of reference, and the sundial makes as much sense as anything I can come up with. There’s also the direction that the “sky” seems to move if you watch the stars (including the sun and moon) over the course of a few minutes or hours. This does assume that you’re facing south in the northern hemisphere. But since the majority of inventing types were in the northern hemisphere in those days (when did Australia get populated by Europeans?), that would make it “natural.”

Interesting question that I’ll be watching for a more intelligent answer to.

All the OED Online has to say about clockwise (clock-wise, actually) is “in the way of a clock, in the direction in which its hands move.” The earliest source it appears in is from 1888, so it doesn’t predate the word clock, if that’s what you were wondering. Clockwise and counterclockwise/anticlockwise replace the older words deosil (or sunwise) and widdershins, respectively.

Is it realted to the direction that the shadow moves on a sundial?

I’m gonna give you a qualified “no.” Here’s my reasoning.

I just found cites from 1882, 1885, and 1886 in addition to reading the original 1888 cite. All of these uses were by people in technical journals, originally talking about light polarization, and later about hurricanes. So the reason that someone first seems to have used it(at least as can be found so far) is that scientists needed a term that described a motion that would have taken many more words or hand gestures.

While I’m sure that future earlier dates will be found, I’ll be flabbergasted if any of them have to do with sundials.

And, yes, I always submit my antedatings to the OED and Merriam-Webster.

I took the OP to be asking “Why do clocks go clockwise?”, not “What’s the origin of the word ‘clockwise’?” While sundials would seem obviously irrelevant to the latter, they may have something to do with the former.

I have to say, though, that ‘widdershins’ is a kickass word, and I wish it were still current.

I did find the following:

*In Mediaeval times religious services in churches and monasteries were probably the reason why the clock was invented. Monks had rise in the morning, to attend many services a day, to eat together, and then to bed. Bells were tolled to call the monks to worship. Indeed it is from the Latin word for bell - clocca, that the name clock is derived. No one knows who invented the first clock, or where, or when. However there are some things we do know; one of these is that during a night in 1198 there was a fire in the Bury St. Edmunds Abbey. Monks put the fire out using their cowls, water from the well and water from the clock; so the Abbey had a water clock!

The Clock is Born
Mechanical clocks as we would recognise them, first made their appearance about 1275. At first these clocks hung on a wall and had an alarm to wake a monk who would then go and ring a bell in the tower to summon his brothers. At some point the clock was made larger so that it had enough power to strike a bell in a tower … and the turret clock was born. One famous example of an early turret clock was at Salisbury Cathedral. Here in 1386, a man called Reginald Glover had to take care of the clock in the belfry as part of a legal contract. Some people say that the old clock on display in the cathedral today is the same clock referred to in the 1386 document, and so it is the oldest clock in the country. Such a claim is difficult to prove (or indeed to disprove!).*

As I pointed out in my OP, the direction of movement may have come from the sundial since this article references that mechanical clocks were set by sundials. It doesn’t state the actual direction of movement of the hands.

Source for above info

The OP inquires about the actual direction of “clockwise”, not the origin of the word itself.

Well, it does have something to do with sundials, but it’s indirect. The term “clockwise” of course refers to the way clocks go. But clocks go clockwise because that’s the way a sundial goes (in the northern hemisphere, where clocks were invented).

We read from left to right. The numbers on a clock (and the hands) start out from left to right. Makes perfect sense.

If that’s wrong, then what about a compass? I don’t know when either were invented, but I imagine it’s only a Google-search away… the start with 0° at the top and progress clockwise, err, compasswise, around the dial.

Since clocks were important in early navigation, maybe there’s some relation there?

From my Posting #7, mechanical clocks seem to date back to 1198. As others have pointed out, they were invented in Europe, therefore it would seem logical that their mechanical movement would duplicate the direction of travel that the sun follows on a sundial which was the primary source of telling time.

Though occuring much later in time (19th century as far as the actual naming but obviously it must have been observed long before this) the clockwise movement in the northern hemisphere is the same as the Coriolis effect

It makes perfect sense only after the direction of rotation has been decided!

Of course, with digital clocks and watches being so common, there is probably an entire generation who does not have any idea what “clockwise” even means. :slight_smile:

doesn’t clockwise mean being able to set your flashing time display on your video?

You can still use the term, I like it too.

A contemporary usage of “widdershins” that I’ve heard refers to being mixed up, confused, disoriented. Specifically, being in a state of mind when one is prone to make mistakes that he or she wouldn’t normally make. It’s kind of similar to the term “at 6’s and 7’s”.

e.g. I hope this post turns out o.k. Sometimes I get all widdershins when I have to do a lot of coding.

This isn’t a very commonly used term though. Dictionary dot com only lists the “counterclockwise” definition. M-W gives “in a left-handed, wrong, or contrary direction” which is the closest I’ve found to an online cite for the definition I have provided.

I personally like the word an use it from time to time in the context I described. But I don’t use it often since I usually end up having to explain it as it is not a very commonly used term.

Wiki notes that going widdershins has traditionally been considered unlucky.

Wiccan/Pagan traditions* use a clockwise (deosil) direction for ritual maintaining the tradition that widdershins is wrong, unlucky, bad, whatever. Widdershins would be used for destructive, negative spell-casting. (Although some practitioners find it appropriate to close a ritual with widdershins movement, the ritual having been opened with a deosil movement. Also, some southern hemisphere practitioners apply their usage of deosil and widdershins according to the clock-wise/counterclock-wise direction originally set in the northern hemisphere while others observe the direction of the sun from their own perspective, thus reversing the direction.) (scroll down for cite)

*It has often been pointed out on this board that modern Wicca is a modern development and is only distanly related to European witchcraft and paganism of pre-Christian times. For point of clarification I’ll point out that my own personal research on the term “widdershins” does not delve any earlier than the twentieth century.

The invention of the mechanical clock is relatively undocumented and hence murky, so it’s impossible to rule out the idea that they were intended to mimic sundials, but it’s also possible to argue that they were originally intended to replicate movements in the heavens. Because these are necessarily connected, these hypotheses lead to the same outcome, but they are different answers to the why question.

For example, there’s the drawing in the notebooks of Villard de Honnecourt (which doesn’t appear to be online) of a mechanism whereby a falling weight rotates a vertical spindle. The label explains that by this means a statue of an angel can always point at the Sun. This is probably from the early 13th century and predates any actual mechanical clock. The scheme also surely wouldn’t work in practice. But it does indicate what someone in the period was hoping to achieve with such a mechanism. It wouldn’t duplicate a sundial, it would duplicate the motion of the Sun.
Just a few years later, in 1271, Robert the Englishman explains:

and goes on to explain a little about the method (quoted in Jean Gimpel’s chapter on the invention of the clock in The Medieval Machine). To someone in the northern hemisphere, the celestial equator rotates clockwise about them.
It’s also clear that many of the very early clocks were indeed actually models of the heavens, with not just the motion of the Sun being represented. Nor could the early clocks exactly mimic a sundial anyway, since they produce different lengths of hour through the day. The astronomical problem posed by Robert was easier to solve mechanically.

Of course, the available evidence is sufficiently fragmentary that other interpretations are possible. Perhaps different inventors had different motivations, while using similar ideas. Or the practical problem of producing a “mechanical sundial” was quickly co-opted and elaborated by those with other interests.

Not at all. We read from left to right. If I had to design a clock that worked with a central rotating hub, I’d have to choose if it goes what will eventually be called clockwise or what will eventually be called counterclockwise. As the engineer designing the thing, I can simply pick whether the clockworks move it one way or the other. Since read from left to right, I make the thing spin in the direction that will eventually be called clockwise, because that makes the most sense.

Again, I’m not saying this is how it was. I don’t know, and that’s why we’re in this thread. I’m just proposing it as not being unlikely.

Hmmm. The shadow of a vertical sundial gnomon in (most of) the northern hemisphere starts out at sunrise pointing roughly west (depending on the time of year), then moves north and east to point due north at local noon, then continues around to point more or less eastwards at sunset.

So if you’re reading the sundial from its south side, yeah, noon falls at the top, the hours before noon to the left of noon, and the hours after noon to the right.

Of course, there were lots of other sundial designs and orientations: for a horizontal gnomon on a vertical (south-facing) dial, for example, noon would fall at the bottom of the dial, so the shadow would actually be moving counter-clockwise.

But it sounds plausible that the clockwise-moving-shadow type of dial inspired the now-standard orientation of the clock face.

It may not be current, but we certinly use it. Last year, someone was being challenged by a piece of pipe during site construction and help came in the form of someone else hollering to turn it widdershins. I guess they weren’t into the “lefty loosey, righty tighty” thing.

Of course, it was technically wrong as deosil and widdershins are surface of the earth-based directions.

I believe that I may have too quickly dismissed the notion of left-to-right reading being an influence on this subject. As Balthisar has pointed out it is not at all outside the realm of possibility. Also bonzer’s and Kimstu’s posts point out very some very useful infomation regarding how we would visualize the suns movement and how this could be used to fashion a crude celestial clock.

It seems to me that there must have been some basis for originally making the choice of “clockwise” versus “counterclockwise” and that perhaps the most logical may indeed come from our reading methodology as opposed to sundial movement since that is subject to the orientation of the sundial.

In addition to the comments already postulated regarding early work in clock making, would any of the early work in Astronomy (specifically the period of say the 12th through 14th centuries) hold any further clues or hints regarding this question?