Thursday, August 25, 2011

IIII on the face

kw: clocks

I have several antique mantel and wall clocks, and one new one, all wind-up. Three of them have Roman numerals on the faces, and I've occasionally wondered why so many clocks (not all) use IIII instead of IV to represent 4.

This tower clock in Munich shows what I mean. It also has a funky X, which goes to show that readability is not the point here; everyone knows which numeral goes in which position anyway.

This morning I did a little digging around, and found this FAQ at UBR on the subject. There are a number of explanations offered. Several people propose that IV is the symbol for Jove or Jupiter (IVPITER), and that people didn't want to see a clock that read 1, 2, 3, GOD, 5 …

One of the correspondents, Ray Mialki of alt.horology sums up the most likely idea: economics. Using IIII for 4, the number of symbols on the clock face is 28, 20 I's, 4 V's and 4 X's. When casting the symbols, a clockmaker needed only a single mold thus: VIIIIX. The four castings could then be separated thus:
One of the IX's and the IIX could of course be turned over to be XI and XII. This makes eminent sense to me. Using IV instead of IIII would require a larger number of unique casting blocks, and they were not cheap to produce or purchase.

Of course, not all clocks use IIII. The Westminster Tower in England, a venerable clock to be sure, uses IV. You can get a contemporary clock made with the numerals any way you like. My newest clock happens to have IIII, and I like that just fine.

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