Hourglass: When It Was Invented and Why It’s Still Relevant Today

You’re probably familiar with the time-measuring device that is an hourglass. Some of us grew up using it for board games such as Alias while others have only seen it on our computer screens while impatiently waiting for something to load. Despite how well known it is today, its invention still remains a mystery. Some sources claim it was first created in the 8th century, while Guinness World Records using records of purchases made by sailors claim it was the 14th century.

How sailors traded water for sand

The first visual proof of an hourglass’ existence dates back to 1338, in a fresco painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. A later mention comes from 1345 from a receipt issued by an English merchant buying four hourglasses. It is widely believed that they were invented for the use of sailors to calculate the time and distance traveled. Naval sandglass was of vital importance when tracking the time and speed of a ship. The most commonly used hourglass took half an hour to empty. The time-lapsed was called a “glass”. Eight “glasses” equaled four hours were then called a “watch”. 

a hand with a ship wheel

This invention was a huge improvement for sailors who were used to relying on a water clock that was severely affected by the movements caused by the ocean showing sailors using multiple hourglasses to keep track of their voyages. The most famous of them would be Ferdinand Magellan, who used a combination of 18 hourglasses on his famous trip around the world in 1519.

The method of measuring speed was to throw a log of wood overboard and see how long it took for the ship to overtake it. They then used the aforementioned sandglass to measure the time and recorded it in their books to keep track of it. It could be argued that marine sandglasses were just as important to sailors as the compasses guiding their way.

Hourglass today: from Harry Potter to the Australian Senate

The hourglass is not only a significant part of our history but also our culture. It was used multiple times throughout the Harry Potter series, namely when Hermione used one to travel through time or the four hourglasses that tracked points for the Hogwarts school houses (but those were filled with gems). 

It is such a significant part of our history and culture that the Australian Senate still uses it for timekeeping purposes. There it is used to indicate how much time remains for a senator to reach the chamber. Although they now use it in conjunction with a digital timer that can be broadcast to show the time on the screen, sandglass continues to be the primary means of timekeeping. Hourglasses are also prized by individuals that admire its aesthetic properties using it as a decor element as well as a tool to boost their productivity. It can be a great addition to the Pomodoro technique that helps avoid distractions and the sight of the sandglass can work as a reminder to get back to the task at hand.

From centuries of the past into a bright future

Although the hourglass was invented centuries ago and reached its peak popularity in the Middle Ages, it is still used today both as a symbol and as a timekeeping device. It started as an aid to measure time and the distance traveled by sailors and it has turned into an object families use while playing board games and individuals utilize to boost their productivity. The Australian Senate even uses one as a time-keeping gadget. It seems that although today we may have different alternatives to an hourglass, it isn’t going away anytime soon.