“This is the house of a clock.”
That is what Villard de Honnecourt, a 13th century French artist, wrote underneath his pen and ink sketch of a Medieval clock tower. It is the earliest depiction we have of such a building.
For centuries there was no such luxury as a constant knowledge of time. People got up when the sun rose and went to bed when the sun did. There was no universal way to keep people on the same time track.
Enter the invention of the clock tower. The earliest towers were called ‘striking clocks’ and did not even have a face on them to show the hour of time, but rather simply had bells to ring out the hour.
As clock towers became more popular, clock faces with hands to show the time were developed. But those early clocks lacked sufficient power to reliably keep time. Often the time would run behind by several hours, and the time would have to be reset daily.
Then a 17th century French scientist, inspired by the pendulum discovery of Galileo, created a pendulum clock. This proved to be a far more accurate method of keeping time, and many pendulum clock towers survive to this day.
These structures became a symbols for communities, with competitions to see who could build the most beautiful clock.
The Old Town Hall clock in Prague is the oldest clock tower still in operation. It’s a spectacular timepiece with dials that show the zodiac and the positions of the sun and the moon.
Necessity might have inspired their construction, but a desire to awe and inspire compelled the clockmakers to design buildings that are in essence, monuments to time, that we still appreciate today.