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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Time Glass

Author: Silvio A. Bedini

( Article orginally published August 1957 )

A great many books have been written about clocks and watches during the course of the past several centuries and even the sun dial has been well represented with a number of volumes relating to gnamonic science. The time glass, however, has been consistently neglected and all that it can claim in the way of a literature of its own are a few articles over a period of years. Yet, in many epochs of the world's history, the time glass has played an important part in the measurement of time.

In our own country's history the time glass was a rare and prized possession of the colonists, for no clocks or watches appear to have been brought from England during the earliest period, and only a few sun dials were available, Unquestionably Time was never a primary consideration in colonial life and for the most part the settlers resorted to time telling by approximating the sun's position. In those towns where sun dials were available, it was possible to establish "noon marks", which consisted of a groove cut into the threshold or window sill of the home. When the sun's shadow fell on this mark, it was exactly noon, and the placement of the shadow at one side or the other served to indicate the time by an approximation of the relative position of the shadow to the mark.

Sun dials were rarities during the Pilgrim Century and probably the earliest in New England was the instrument made by William Bowyer in 1630 for Governor Endicott of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was described in these pages a few months ago.

Rarer still was the time glass in New England, for no listing of glasses can be found in the earliest inventories and wills of the Massachwsetts colonists. Yet such glasses were undoubtedly used to mark the time aboard the ships on their voyages that brought the settlers to the New World. Consequently it must be presumed that at least several of these precious and fragile timetellers were retained upon arrival by the leaders to regulate the time and life in their new country.

Civil and religious records indicate that within a short time after settlement, church services and town meetings were ruled by a time glass enclosed in a wooden or metal cage which was supported on a standard placed beside or below the pulpit. As the sand ran out, a clerk or the sexton turned it. Although this apparently ostentatious procedure was designed to remind the speaker of the passage of time, contemporary records indicate that the hint was too rarely taken and sermons lasted as long as several hours.

One of the earliest surviving examples of these pulpit glasses was discovered in Salem, Mass., and forms part of the collection of Essex Institute, and it is with the Institute's kind permission that it is reproduced here. The glass is of two hour duration and constructed of separate blown globes joined at the center with wax and supported within a carved wooden frame.

As the new country grew, the need for more timetellers increased and at first it appears that only sun dials and time glasses were produced in the colonies. It was not until the first quarter of the 18th Century that a clock was made in America, as far as can be determined. The making of time glasses became a sideline of the flask makers and as early as 1716 James Maxwell of Boston advertised that he made and mended them.

Time glasses were of considerable importance for timetelling aboard ship inasmuch as mechanical timepieces for this purpose were not available for a long time to come, and records of the Revolutionary War provide interesting references to the use of glasses during combat at sea. Glasses for shipboard were of heavier and sturdier construction than those designed for domestic use, and they were made for two and four hour duration. A special type of ship's glasses were the log glasses utilized to determine the speed of the vessel, which measured spans of 14 and 28 seconds.

The invention of the time glass is traditionally attributed to a monk of Chartres named Luitprand shortly before the accession of Charlemagne. Luitprand is said to have re-invented the blowing of glass which had become a lost art. Luitprand's time glasses are supposedly the prototype of all those which have been produced since his time. The principle, shape and style have not changed through the centuries and only the sizes and form of decoration have varied in the course of time.

No time glass of the earlier periods has survived and there has been much speculation as to what its appearance may have been. Probably the best representation of these earlier time glasses is to be found in the famous fresco in the Palazzo della Signoria in Siena, Italy.

The fresco represents the "Allegory of the Good Government of Siena" and was painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between 1337 and 1343. Part of the painting shows the seated figures of Magnanimity with a plate of money, Temperance holding an hour glass, and Justice with a sword.

The same manner of construction of time glasses was used for centuries. The two separate globes or bulbs were blown in pear shaped molds which were rotated during the process to ensure an evenness of shape. The bulbs were then set into a proper frame of wood or metal and joined at the waist with wax or a binder of powdered eggs, then bound with cord or a strip of leather. The sand used in the glasses consisted of finely ground marble dust which had been boiled in wine and dried, a process repeated many times.

In actuality the principle of the time glass may have been derived from a timetelling device employed by the northern barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire. Having no conception of accurate time and needing only such general time measurement for setting of the sentries, meals, and similar military necessities, a simple device was employed which was apparently quite successful and fulfilled their primitive needs admirably. When the chieftain awakened at da'wn and came forth from his tent or hut, a slave boy took up his position at the door with two helmets before him, one of them empty and the other filled with small pebbles. His duty was to transfer the pebbles one by one from the full helmet to the empty one. Because of the size of the pebble and the large capacity of the helmet, a period of approximately two hours was consum,ed by the operation. When the exchange had been completed and the last small pebble transferred, the boy struck a blow with the blade of a sword against a shield, a sound which was heard throughout the camp, and marked the end of another time period. It is very likely that their day was divided by this means into six parts or watches, in the manner of the Assyrians.

Today time glasses are eagerly scaght by collectors of timepieces, collectors of glass and collectors of early Americana as well as many others. Authentic old glasses are scarce. and command high prices if intact and original in all part.

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