Spotlight: Yi Xing – The Grandfather of Time

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Clocks and watches are essential to everyday life, assisting us with being on time and staying on time.

But how long have watches and clocks been around?

Timekeeping devices trace back to ancient Egypt. The Egyptian version of the clock was called an obelisk or sundial and was 9 metres tall. The length and position of the shadow cast by this tall structure would determine the time of the day.

Thankfully today, clocks can fit in your pocket and don’t require the sun to tell time. It was Yi Xing (pronounced I-Hsing), from China who invented a way to keep track of time using mechanical gears. He kick-started the evolution of time storing devices.

Watch the video to gain an overview of telling time.


Who was Yi Xing?

Yi Xing was a Chinese mathematician, astronomer, engineer, and Buddhist monk born in 618–907 tasked with improving the calendar system.

Based on his research and the work of other famous Chinese scholars, Yi Xing created one of the first astronomical clocks that featured an escapement mechanism or weights that were used to pull the clock gears, making sure the clock stayed on time. This clock was very tall and was used to measure the relative distance of the planets and stars, as well as keeping track of time. Instead of using shadows created by the sun, it was powered by a water wheel that would turn the gear in the clock when water filled each scoop of its blade. The best part was once several scoops were filled throughout the day, puppets would appear and play drums, bells, gongs, as well as string instruments. This idea has evolved into the modern day alarm clock.

Yi Xing called the first mechanical clock the Water-Driven Spherical Bird’s-Eye-View Map of the Heaven!

Many European clockmakers improved on Yi Xing’s design. They focused on the construction so that the clock could be transported around. Clocks and then watches became even more precise in telling the time with the introduction of more moving parts.


yi xing


A history of clocks – a brief timeline

  • 500 BC – Sundials were built in ancient Egypt to mark the passage of the seasons.
  • 300 AD – Introduction of hourglass clocks.
  • 723 AD – First mechanical clock was made by Chinese mathematician, Yi Xing
  • 885 – Medieval Europe began using candles with time markings.
  • 1092 – Su Song designed an hydro-mechanical astronomical clock tower.
  • 1577 – Swiss clockmaker Jost Burgi invented the minute hand.
  • 1657 – Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens made the first pendulum clock.
  • 1676 – British watchmaker Daniel Quare created the first repeating watch.
  • 1840 – Edinburgh clockmaker Alexander Bain created the first electric clock.
  • 1884 – Worldwide standardization of time zones was put in place.
  • 1895 – First modern electric clock created by Frank Hope Jones.
  • 1900s – Clocks and personal watches began being produced on mass.


Inquiry – Digging Deeper


Find out more about how a cuckoo (pendulum) clock works by watching the video below. This video shows how weights are used in the clock to pull the gears at the right place making sure the clock stays in time.