Historical Hackers: Ctesibius Tells Time

People are obsessed with the time and the weather. We’ve talked about the weather since we were all cave dwellers hunting with spears. But the time is a different matter. Sure, people always had the idea of the passage of time. The sun rising and setting gives a natural sense of days, but daylight and dark periods vary by the time of year and to get an accurate and linear representation of time turns out to be rather difficult. That is unless you are a Greek engineer living in Alexandria around 250 BC.

Legend has it that and engineer working in his father’s barbershop led him to discover not only the first working clock, but also the pipe organ, launching the field of pneumatics in the process. That engineer was named Ctesibius and while his story is mostly forgotten, it shows he has a place as a historical hacker.

You might think there were timekeeping devices before 250 BC, and that’s sort of true. However, the devices before Ctesibius had many limitations. For example, a sundial can tell time, but only if the sun is shining. At night or during a storm it is worthless.

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Steampunk Water Thief Clock Steals Attention, Too

The funny thing about clocks is that the more intriguing they are to look at, the more precious time is wasted. This steampunk clepsydra is no exception. A clepsydra, or water thief clock is an ancient design that takes many forms. Any clock that uses the inflow or outflow of water to measure time could be considered a clepsydra, even if it uses electronics like this steampunk version.

[DickB1]’s sticky-fingered timepiece works by siphoning water from the lower chamber into the upper chamber on a one-minute cycle. An MSP430 and a MOSFET control the 12 V diaphragm pump. As the water level rises in the upper chamber, a float in the siphon pushes a lever that moves a ratchet and pawl that’s connected to the minute hand. The hour hand is driven by gears. A hidden magnet and Hall effect sensor help keep the clock clicking at one-minute intervals.

Although [DickB1] doesn’t tell you exactly how to replicate this clock, he offers enough information to get started in designing your own. Take a second to check it out after the break.

Most of the thieving around here is done for the joules, so here’s a joule thief running a clock.

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