On the Origin of Clockwork, Perpetual Motion Devices, and the Compass

On the Origin of Clockwork, Perpetual Motion Devices, and the Compass

Download options:

  • 1.04 MB
  • 2.00 MB



HE histories of the mechanical clock and the magnetic compass must be accounted amongst the most tortured of all our efforts to understand the origins of man's important inventions. Ignorance has too often been replaced by conjecture, and conjecture by misquotation and the false authority of "common knowledge" engendered by the repetition of legendary histories from one generation of textbooks to the next. In what follows, I can only hope that the adding of a strong new trail and the eradication of several false and weaker ones will lead us nearer to a balanced and integrated understanding of medieval invention and the intercultural transmission of ideas.

For the mechanical clock, perhaps the greatest hindrance has been its treatment within a self-contained "history of time measurement" in which sundials, water-clocks and similar devices assume the natural role of ancestors to the weight-driven escapement clock in the early 14th century. This view must presume that a generally sophisticated knowledge of gearing antedates the invention of the clock and extends back to the Classical period of Hero and Vitruvius and such authors well-known for their mechanical ingenuities.

Furthermore, even if one admits the use of clocklike gearing before the existence of the clock, it is still necessary to look for the independent inventions of the weight-drive and of the mechanical escapement. The first of these may seem comparatively trivial; anyone familiar with the raising of heavy loads by means of ropes and pulley could surely recognize the possibility of using such an arrangement in reverse as a source of steady power. Nevertheless, the use of this device is not recorded before its association with hydraulic and perpetual motion machines in the manuscripts of Riḍwān, ca. 1200, and its use in a clock using such a perpetual motion wheel (mercury filled) as a clock escapement, in the astronomical codices of Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile, ca. 1272.

The second invention, that of the mechanical escapement, has presented one of the most tantalizing of problems. Without doubt, the crown and foliot type of escapement appears to be the first complicated mechanical invention known to the European Middle Ages; it heralds our whole age of machine-making. Yet no trace has been found either of a steady evolution of such escapements or of their invention in Europe, though the astronomical clock powered by a water wheel and governed by an escapement-like device had been elaborated in China for several centuries before the first appearance of our clocks. We must now rehearse a revised story of the origin of the clock as it has been suggested by recent researches on the history of gearing and on Chinese and other astronomical machines. After this we shall for the first time present evidence to show that this story is curiously related to that of the Perpetuum Mobile, one of the great chimeras of science, that came from its medieval origin to play an important part in more recent developments of energetics and the foundations of thermodynamics. It is a curious mixture, all the more so because, tangled inextricably in it, we shall find the most important and earliest references to the use of the magnetic compass in the West. It seems that in revising the histories of clockwork and the magnetic compass, these considerations of perpetual motion devices may provide some much needed evidence.

Figure 1.—Framework Structure of the Astronomical Clock of Giovanni de Dondi of Padua, A.D. 1364. Power and Motion Gearing

It may be readily accepted that the use of toothed wheels to transmit power or turn it through an angle was widespread in all cultures several centuries before the beginning of our era....