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The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day, the lunar month, and the year. Devices operating on several physical processes have been used over the millennia. A sundial shows the time by displaying the position of a shadow on a flat surface. There are a range of duration timers, a well-known example being the hourglass. Water clocks, along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments. A major advance occurred in ancient China around 725 with the invention of the escapement by the Han Chinese mechanical engineer and buddhist monk Yi Xing, which allowed construction of the world's first mechanical clocks in China by both Yi Xing, Zhang Sixun and Su Song. By the year 1300, clock escapements were being developed for mechanical clocks in Europe which used oscillating timekeepers like balance wheels. Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century. During the 15th and 16th centuries, clockmaking flourished. The next development in accuracy occurred after 1656 with the invention of the pendulum clock. A major stimulus to improving the accuracy and reliability of clocks was the importance of precise time-keeping for navigation. The electric clock was patented in 1840. The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all.
The timekeeping element in every modern clock is a harmonic oscillator, a physical object (resonator) that vibrates or oscillates repetitively at a precisely constant frequency. This object can be a pendulum, a tuning fork, a quartz crystal, or the vibration of electrons in atoms as they emit microwaves. Analog clocks usually indicate time using angles. Digital clocks display a numeric representation of time. Two numeric display formats are commonly used on digital clocks: 24-hour notation and 12-hour notation. Most digital clocks use electronic mechanisms and LCD, LED, or VFD displays. For convenience, distance, telephony or blindness, auditory clocks present the time as sounds. There are also clocks for the blind that have displays that can be read by using the sense of touch. Some of these are similar to normal analog displays, but are constructed so the hands can be felt without damaging them. The evolution of the technology of clocks continues today.
The study of timekeeping is known as horology.
When the Sun is shining, its apparent position in the sky moves during a day, reflecting the rotation of the Earth. Shadows cast by stationary objects move correspondingly, so their positions can be used to indicate the time of day. A sundial shows the time by displaying the position of a shadow on a (usually) flat surface, which has markings that correspond to the hours. Sundials can be horizontal, vertical, or in other orientations. Sundials were widely used in ancient times. With the knowledge of latitude, a well-constructed sundial can measure local solar time with reasonable accuracy, within a minute or two. Sundials continued to be used to monitor the performance of clocks until the modern era. However, practical limitations, such as that sundials work only when the Sun shines, and never during the night, encouraged the use of other techniques for measuring and displaying time.
Many devices can be used to mark passage of time without respect to reference time (time of day, minutes, etc...) and can be useful for measuring duration and/or intervals. Examples of such duration timers are, candle clocks, incense clocks and the hourglass. Both the candle clock and the incense clock work on the same principle wherein the consumption of resources is more or less constant allowing reasonably precise, and repeatable, estimates of time passages. In the hourglass, fine sand pouring through a tiny hole at a constant rate indicates an arbitrary, predetermined, passage of time, the resource is not consumed but re-used.
Water clocks, also known as clepsydrae (sg: clepsydra), along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day counting tally stick. Given their great antiquity, where and when they first existed is not known and perhaps unknowable. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and in Egypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, write about water clocks appearing as early as 4000 BC in these regions of the world.
Greek astronomer Andronicus of Cyrrhus supervised the construction of the Tower of the Winds in Athens in the 1st century B.C.
The Greek and Roman civilizations are credited for initially advancing water clock design to include complex gearing, which was connected to fanciful automata and also resulted in improved accuracy. These advances were passed on through Byzantium and Islamic times, eventually making their way back to Europe. Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks（水鐘）in 725 A.D., passing their ideas on to Korea and Japan.
Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. Pre-modern societies do not have the same precise timekeeping requirements that exist in modern industrial societies, where every hour of work or rest is monitored, and work may start or finish at any time regardless of external conditions. Instead, water clocks in ancient societies were used mainly for astrological reasons. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial. While never reaching the level of accuracy of a modern timepiece, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by the more accurate pendulum clock in 17th-century Europe.
Islamic civilization is credited with further advancing the accuracy of clocks with elaborate engineering. In 797 (or possibly 801), the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presented Charlemagne with an Asian Elephant named Abul-Abbas together with a ,,particularly elaborate example" of a water clock.
Pope Sylvester II introduced clocks to northern and western Europe around 1000AD An elephant clock in a manuscript by Al-Jazari (1206 AD) from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.
In the 13th century, Al-Jazari, an engineer from Mesopotamia (lived 1136-1206) who worked for Artuqid king of Diyar-Bakr, Nasir al-Din, made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes. The book described 50 mechanical devices in 6 categories, including water clocks. The most reputed clocks included the Elephant, Scribe and Castle clocks, all of which have been successfully reconstructed. As well as telling the time, these grand clocks were symbols of status, grandeur and wealth of the Urtuq State.