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rojo's avatar

Why do clocks rotate in a "Clockwise" direction?

Asked by rojo (24159points) March 2nd, 2016

I realize only the older, pre-cellphone crowd will understand what I mean since digital clocks don’t rotate at all.
But why do they rotate in that particular direction? Was it just an accident of invention? Is it some sort of psychological need? Does it relate to the rotation of the Earth? Were some clocks made that went the other way before it was standardized?
Where did the twenty four hour day come from? Why not twenty hours? Why do we divide it into two twelve hour segments? Why not four six hour segments to balance the four seasons? Why divide it at all? Could we ever go to a metric time system?

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20 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

Because that is the direction that the shadow on sun dials moved, at least on the northern hemisphere.
That is my guess.

SecondHandStoke's avatar


Earth’s motion and sundials.

The day’s hours are divided into groups. I know when to stop greeting people with “Good afternoon.”

Why hours? Or minutes for that matter? Because this is how one revolution of the Earth is evenly divided. Same as navigational degrees, minutes, seconds.

A decimal based system isn’t required as time is measured by a pretty good (still requires routine adjustment) world standard.

Decimal timekeeping is used for convenience is some situations (minutes are replaced with hundredths of an hour).

ibstubro's avatar

For a clock to do otherwise would be counter productive.

rojo's avatar

@ibstubro not counter revolutionary?

cazzie's avatar

Oddly I had a hard time explaining to some people that the sun came up in East in the Southern Hemisphere, too.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

“Time is bunk.”

-Zaphod Beeblebrox.

zenvelo's avatar

Because it is an analog of the real World, not a false representation like the metric system.

Did you know that you can use an analog wrist watch as a compass? That is because the clock face and the hands are in tune with the apparent movement of the Sun from East to West during the day.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^ Actually our current system for measuring time was very well established long before the technology required to create accurate metric standards existed.

CWOTUS's avatar

Because widdershins is too hard for most people to remember or spell.

Pachy's avatar

Time is like Donald Trump’s political convictions: Pure illusion.

NerdyKeith's avatar

Well clockwise is a movement towards the right. Which is the same manner in which we read and write (unless you are dyslexic). Most people read and write text moving towards the right. That would be my theory on the matter.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@cazzie That’s hilarious. Did you also tell them that it was surprisingly easy to get used to seeing everything upside down as well?

Jeruba's avatar

@cazzie, I’ll bet those would be the same people who want to know why a mirror reverses from left to right and not from top to bottom.

At least they’re remembering that there’s something different about the Southern Hemisphere, and it has to do with tracking time.

Soubresaut's avatar

On the why-24-hours, I knew vaguely that using 12 and 60 had something to do with ancient counting systems (Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia), but I didn’t remember enough to feel like I could state it without looking it up to check… Then I found an article from Scientific American that goes into much more detail about time and the units dividing it than I ever knew!

Just one aspect the article brings to “light”—I’d never really thought about it before, but of course it has to be true—sundial hours are variable with the seasons, as the days lengthen and shorten.

Some excerpts:

“As early as 1500 B.C., the Egyptians had developed a more advanced sundial. A T-shaped bar placed in the ground, this instrument was calibrated to divide the interval between sunrise and sunset into 12 parts. This division reflected Egypt’s use of the duodecimal system—the importance of the number 12 is typically attributed either to the fact that it equals the number of lunar cycles in a year or the number of finger joints on each hand (three in each of the four fingers, excluding the thumb), making it possible to count to 12 with the thumb.”

“Once both the light and dark hours were divided into 12 parts, the concept of a 24-hour day was in place. The concept of fixed-length hours, however, did not originate until the Hellenistic period, when Greek astronomers began using such a system for their theoretical calculations. Hipparchus, whose work primarily took place between 147 and 127 B.C., proposed dividing the day into 24 equinoctial hours, based on the 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness observed on equinox days. Despite this suggestion, laypeople continued to use seasonally varying hours for many centuries. (Hours of fixed length became commonplace only after mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the 14th century.) ”

“Hipparchus and other Greek astronomers employed astronomical techniques that were previously developed by the Babylonians, who resided in Mesopotamia. The Babylonians made astronomical calculations in the sexagesimal (base 60) system they inherited from the Sumerians, who developed it around 2000 B.C. Although it is unknown why 60 was chosen, it is notably convenient for expressing fractions, since 60 is the smallest number divisible by the first six counting numbers as well as by 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30.”

jaytkay's avatar

Well clockwise is a movement towards the right. Which is the same manner in which we read and write

Not if you read and write Arabic or Hebrew.

I knew about Hebrew before but just learned Arabic was right-to-left when I Googled before answering this question.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

Only if it is analog, digital has no direction ! !

ibstubro's avatar

70 to 95 percent of humans are right handed.

Nearly everything that has a human handedness is oriented to the right. It only stands to reason that as clocks with hands needing mechanical adjustments were developed, they would be oriented for right handed people.

To do otherwise would be counter intuitive.

ibstubro's avatar

Okay, I’m back, and I looked into this.

Some of the earliest devices for telling standardized time were sundials.
Properly installed sundials face true north and depend on the sun rising in the east, meaning the shadow moves from left to right.
Clocks just followed suit.
Human time has flowed from left to right since it became standardized.

Jeruba's avatar

So, @ibstubro: your research supports @ragingloli‘s logical response in the first post. Makes sense to me.

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