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Question:

    How does an hourglass measure time?

Answer:    

    By using carefully calculated amounts of sand.

The hourglass is sometimes referred to as a sand clock or a sandglass. Like other timepieces, it needs to be carefully calibrated. The hourglass maker must test the instrument and fine tune it to measure the correct length of time.

There are many factors that contribute to the ability of an hourglass to accurately measure time. The type and quality of sand is key. It must have a rate of flow that does not fluctuate. Sand that is too coarse will wear away the glass, eventually making the neck too large. Most important is the ratio of the neck (the hole, or tube) width to the diameter of the sand particles.

Here are the other factors that affect the accuracy of an hourglass:

  • The amount or volume of sand used
  • The size and angle of the glass bulbs
  • The quality of the sand or granular material. It must be fine, dry and consistently formed so it can flow smoothly. (Some substances used in the past were fine grain sand, powdered eggshells, and powdered marble.)
  • The width of the neck
  • A tight seal so no moisture can get into the chambers. Moisture can add weight to the sand or clog up the neck.
  • A flat and level surface on which to rest the hourglass
We still use the hourglass to keep track of time. Just think of its many uses for cooking and for playing games!
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Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Balmer, R.T. The operation of sand clocks and their medieval development. Technology and culture, v. 19, Oct., 1978: 615-632
  • Turner, A.J. The accomplishment of many Years: Three notes towards a history of the sand glass. In Of time and measurement: studies in the history of horology and fine technology by A.J. Turner, Brookfield, VT, Variorum, c1993. p. 161-172
  • Sternfeld, Joseph. Hourglasses. National association of watch and clock collectors bulletin. Supplement: 1953.
  • Brackin, A.J. Clocks: Chronicling time (Series: The Encyclopedia of discovery and invention). San Diego, CA, Lucent Books, c1991. 96 p. (Juvenile)

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "hourglass," "time," or "sand clock" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Image of an hourglass, or "sand clock," from The History of Time (Thinkquest).


A poster comes to life. The same kind of tiny hourglasses which time the nation's three-minute breakfast eggs are used to measure the heating time of steel in an annealing oven, where the metal is "cooked" at temperatures up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Allegheny-Steel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, 1942. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Image: see caption below
The hour has come -- let it not be missed. Edmund S. Valtman, artist, 1972. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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  November 28, 2011
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