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Clockwise

 

 

Why Is "Clockwise" Clockwise?

It's something that we've simply taken for granted since we were first taught how to tell time--that clockwise is the way the hands rotate, and counter-clockwise is the other way. Being of a young age where we took adults at their word, few or none of us probably bothered to ask why. Even if we had, our kindergarten teachers probably would have said something like "Because that's the way it is," and then made a little check in their book to record our insubordination.

Now that we're adults, and a little more free to inquire about things, it stands as a pretty good question. Who made the decision in the first place? It's certainly not a natural motion to circulate left to right--witness the counter-clockwise movement of baseball runners, the Kentucky derby horses, and skaters at the roller rink, as well as hurricanes north of the equator.

There are a lot of clockwise phenomena as well: the "on," "higher," or "tighten" direction on knobs, dials, faucets, light bulbs, screws, and bottle caps; dialing on a rotary telephone; record turntables; and turning a manual can opener, eggbeater, or pencil sharpener. But most of these can be explained by noting that most people are right handed, and therefore have more torque moving things in a left-to-right direction.

The truth about the origin of clocks moving clockwise has nothing to do with torque. In fact it's a much more elegant explanation:

Before there were clocks time was measured by hourglasses and sundials. Since the civilizations that were using these timepieces were all in the northern hemishere, the sun was always at least slightly to the south at all times. So sundial needles were all designed to cast shadows northward onto the sundial face. Since the sun always rises in the east, the shadow it would cast would start on the west side, which is the left side when facing north. As the sun moved westward during the day, the shadow would move to the right, in a "clockwise" direction. So the first clock "hands" determined what "clockwise" would be, and when mechanical clocks were developed they naturally followed the established direction.

Similarly, if one were facing south towards the sun, the visual passage that it would trace across the sky would also be in a left-to-right, or "clockwise" direction. Even prior to the sundial there has already been an established tradition of this "sunwise" direction, and it can be seen in rituals all over the world; from the dawn of the Sumerians and their written records, amongst the very early clans of the Scottish Highlands, in the sand-paintings of the Navajo in the American Southwest, to the prayer wheel of the modern Tibetan. In what may be a deliberate rejection of this pagan ritualism the Stations of the Cross in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are visited counterclockwise.

 

 

 

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