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Student Research Guide WQ24/ History and Impacts of Clocks and Timekeeping

Student Research Guide for Library 201/ Sydney Wassom

What is this Guide for?


The Impact of Clocks in Early Europe

 This is a student-created research guide for English 102 & Library 201 Learning Community

This guide presents information about the impacts of clocks in early Europe and their influence on the differences and powers between people of the church and common merchants. 

The research thesis of this guide is to provide information on the history of clocks/timekeeping and focus on early Europe, where clocks helped to shift power from religious institutes to merchant classes. 

The research questions addressed in this guide are:

  1. How did people track time before mechanical clocks?
  2. How did clocks change society in early Europe?
  3. What changes did clocks make to religious institutes and workplaces?


Keeping time is used in everything, from setting meetings up to deciding how long to bake things. Despite this, the knowledge of how this tool became widely popular is not well known. The transition from other means of timekeeping to mechanical clocks is an intriguing history. This research paper delves into the complex and interesting history of the rise of mechanical clocks in early 14th-century Europe and how it affected both the merchant and religious classes. The methodology used for researching this topic was searching through a variety of SVC databases, scanning a variety of academic EBooks, and finding other sources from Google Scholar. The results of this research show that while mechanical clocks were made around the late 13th century, it took until the 14th century for them to begin being used in Europe, mainly around Italy and Germany at first. There was pushback from the churches, who beforehand had been the main keepers of time, whilst the merchant and working classes embraced it quickly. When the church was eventually won over with this new invention, the current 24-hour day that we know had become the norm everywhere. The implications of these findings is that 24-hour days have not always been used, and that there are many techniques for keeping time other than the mechanical clocks people are so used to.

Background Information

  • Clocks were invented around 1300 AD, but did not begin to spread to towns until the 1400's. They were mostly used in courts.


  • The first clocks were invented and used around northern Italy and southern Germany. 


  • Before the invention of the mechanical clocks, people used sundials, water clocks, candles, or sunlight to measure the passing of time. Churches had a system of bells that would ring seven times a day to signify when praying was needed. Although these timekeeping techniques worked in their own way, they were not as accurate as mechanical clocks because they mostly relied on nature, which changes constantly. 


  • Having a mechanical clock was, at first, a sign of power/wealth because of the complexity of the building process. 


  • Early clocks did not have dials or hands but rather chimed with a bell when an hour passed.


  • Early clocks were not as accurate as current clocks, they were being set by sundials. The accuracy increased when the swinging pendulum was added.


The video below is an animated informational overview of how people told time before clocks and how they became popular and used. This resource is important to the topic because it provides information about how clocks rose into power and how that affected people, whilst having an animated scenery so the viewer can observe slight changes as well. 

Source citation:

Digital, Atlas. “About Time - Chapter 9 - the Clock.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Sept. 2020, 

All Content CC-BY.