Sand timer hourglass (also called sand glasses and sand clocks) may have been used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but history can only document the fact that both cultures had the technology to make the glass. The first claims to sand glasses are credited to the Greeks in the third century B.C. History also suggests sand clocks were used in the Senate of ancient Rome to time speeches, and the hourglasses got smaller and smaller, possibly as an indication of the quality of the political speeches.
The hourglass first appeared in Europe in the eighth century, and may have been made by Luitprand, a monk at the cathedral in Chartres, France. By the early fourteenth century, the sand glass was used commonly in Italy. It appears to have been widely used throughout Western Europe from that time through 1500. The hourglass or sand clock follows exactly the same principle as the clepsydra. Two globes (also called phials or ampules) of glass are connected by a narrow throat so that sand (with relatively uniform grain size) flows from the upper globe to the lower. Hourglasses were made in different sizes based on pre-tested measurements of sand flow in different sizes of globes. A housing or frame that enclosed the globes could be fitted to the two globes to form a top and bottom for the metal sand timer and was used to invert the hourglass and start the flow of sand again. Some hourglasses or sets of hourglasses were set in a pivoted mount so they could be turned easily.
The earliest writings referring to sand glasses are from 1345 when Thomas de Stetsham, a clerk on a ship called La George in the service of King Edward III (1312-1377) of England, ordered 16 hourglasses. In 1380, following the death of King Charles V (1337-1380) of France, an inventory of his possessions included a "large sea clock … in a large wooden brass-bound case."
John Harrison and his brother James were introduced to clock repair by their father, Henry. At the time, clock making, or horology, was undergoing a developmental revolution. Mechanical clocks had existed since the fourteenth century, but had remained rather primitive in their operation until Christiaan Huygens invented the weight-and-pendulum clock in 1656. One limitation was that they were totally dependent upon the earth's gravity for their operation. This meant that they could not keep accurate time at sea, and could not be adapted for portability. Even moving them across a room would require adjustment.
The Harrison brothers set to work on developing a marine chronometer in 1728. The motivating factor was money. In 1714, the English Admiralty set up an award of 20,000 for anyone who could provide mariners with a reliable clock that, when used with celestial sightings, could keep them informed of their longitude at sea. Mariners had to rely heavily on dead reckoning to find their way, often leading to tragic results.
The Harrison strategy was to design an instrument that was not only internally accurate but also externally stable. The Harrisons made several models of marine chronometers. The fourth model proved to be the most successful. On a nine-week voyage from England to Jamaica in 1761, the device had only a five-second error.
The Board of Longitude, apparently miffed that a common artisan had achieved the coveted goal, reluctantly gave up only half of the prize. John, minus his brother, refused to accept only half of the reward and persisted until the other half was relinquished.
The Board subjected his invention to undue scrutiny and required him to design a fifth model. This time, Harrison outdid himself by designing a compact timepiece that resembled a modern day pocket watch. It was far more convenient than the previous models, which were heavy and bulky. The Board still refused to capitulate. Finally, only a personal appeal to King George III and the King's intervention could set things right, and Harrison received the full reward in 1773 at age seventy-nine. Harrison lived only three more years.
These two early associations of sand clocks with the sea show how navigation had become a time-dependent science. Compasses and charts, developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, helped navigators determine bearings and direction, but time measurement was essential to estimating distance traveled. The sand glass may have been invented —or perfected—for use at sea where equal units of time were measured to estimate distance; by contrast, on land, unequal time measurements were more important because activities depended on the length of day.
The great advances in maritime science occurred in the twelfth century with the development of the magnetic compass in Amalfi, Italy. Other Italian port cities like Genoa and Venice contributed to the astronomical advances in navigation, and, by coincidence, Venice was the world's greatest glass-blowing center. Furthermore, the fine marble dust from the quarries at Carrara was perfect for use as sand in navigational sand clocks. As well as measuring time as distance at sea, hourglasses were used by the navies of several nations to "keep the watch" or measure the time the crew worked. The ship's boy was in charge of turning the hourglass; to get off work early, he would "swallow the sand" or turn the glass before it was empty.