The Washington Post

Public clocks do a number on Roman numerals

Joe Heim reports in the Post on Friday that demand for public clocks is increasing, even though more people rely on cell phones for time-keeping these days. As Daylight Saving Time ends this weekend, keepers of towering timepieces are preparing to reset the hour manually — which, due to our auto-adjusted digital clocks on computers and smart phones, feels like a throwback to an earlier era.

But another antiquated feature of public clocks also includes the way that they are numbered. Take a look at the clock below. Is there a mistake in the Roman numerals?

Father Steve Planning is President of Gonzaga College High School but also keeper and primary caretaker of its 19th century manual clock. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Heim says:

So, are you wondering why the clock face in the picture above doesn't use the Roman numeral for four? It's no mistake. Most clocks using Roman numerals traditionally use IIII instead of IV, though there are differing explanations as to how this came about historically and no answer is definitive. One of the most popular guesses is that King Louis XIV of France ordered his clockmakers to use IIII and the practice stuck. Another theory is that it simply looked better symetrically. One of the rare prominent clocks that uses the IV instead of IIII is Big Ben in London.

Regardless of how it is numbered, the nostalgia of a public clock is good for the community, says Carrol Kindel, who bought a clock for her Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“A clock is very much like a building. There’s a constancy to it,” Kindel says. “Businesses come and go and things change, but this is something that anchors the neighborhood.”

We asked readers: Do you still wear a watch?

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.


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