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Back in Time: Incense Clocks

For thousands of years, there have been many methods of keeping time. Did you know that during the Song dynasty in China, incense sticks were used to keep track of time? The sticks were made in different lengths, either straight or spiraled, but each calibrated to known burning rates. The spiraled sticks lasted longer and resembled the mosquito-repellent coils we use today.

The sticks could be cut to a specific length to reach a desired time, similar to a timer. Additionally, notches could be cut into the stick in order to determine how much time had passed since the initial lighting of the incense. Early Geisha houses would use this method to determine how much male callers owed their entertainers.

The incense sticks could even be used as alarms. A bell would be attached to a stick so that when the stick burned down to the desired level, the bell would fall off and ring. Even doctors would adhere to this method by breaking off different lengths of incense so that they would know when it was time to give another dose of medicine.

Others alarms had weights attached so that when the incense would run out, the weight would drop into a gong dish to signal that a certain amount of time had passed. They would even use different fragrances to denote which hour was which. Is that lavender? Then it must be lunchtime!

Though innovative for the time, I’m glad we don’t have to use incense to tell time now. I’m very fond of my snooze button and I’ve never heard of an incense stick with one of those!

Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma was used as a reference for this article.

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