The first thing most of us notice about clocks and watches when we learn to tell time, is that the hands turn clockwise the habit of perceiving clockwise motion as a representation of the forward movement of time is deeply ingrained; so much so that once having learned it, most of us cease to notice it at all. Imagine you are standing on the center of a watch: in any direction you face, the hands will appear to pass from left to right. Theoretically, we could just as easily tell time if they went from right to left, so why do clock and watch hands overwhelmingly have rightward, or clockwise, motion? Why is there no period in history where anticlockwise and clockwise rotation competed for supremacy?
The explanation for the overwhelming preference for clockwise movement of clock hands is somewhat obscure, but a likely explanation (and one often cited) is that if you happen to be in the northern hemisphere, and you stand facing the Sun’s path across the sky, you’ll see it describe a clockwise arc as it travels from the east, to the southern sky overhead, and finally to the west, where it sets. If you make a sundial, the shadow the sundial throws will likewise follow a clockwise course, going from west to north to east (in opposition to the path of the Sun). Early clocks, so the thinking goes, simply reflected the apparent motion of the Sun, and of the gnomon (pointer) of a sundial.
Whether this is actually true is hard to establish with absolute certainty, but there is no reason mechanically for a clockwise direction of the hands to be preferred (it is as easy to make a clock with anticlockwise motion of the hands, as clockwise) and so, the idea that the movement of clock hands was generally made to ape the motion of a sundial’s shadow seems a reasonable one. There may very well be documentation to that effect somewhere in the historical record; I haven’t found anything specific but it’s possible that somewhere out there is a manuscript in which a clockmaker from the 1300s writes, ” … and as the sundyal goeth, so shall goe ye olde hands of ye clocke, forsooth,” or words to that effect.
This raises a couple of interesting further questions, which are: what did people call clockwise motion before there were clocks? The second of these is, what’s so special about the northern hemisphere?
The answer to the first question is difficult; the idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. “Widdershins” is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe) and very colorfully. In the Scottish Records of Elgin, which cover the years 1280 to 1800, we read a complaint that says, “Sayand the said Margarat Baffour vas ane huyr and ane wyche and that sche eid widersonnis about mennis hous sark alane,” which roughly translates as “Claimed that the aforementioned Margaret Balfour, was a whore and a witch, and that she went [in the opposite direction to sunwise] about men’s houses in only her shift.” Clearly if you wanted to be done for witchcraft in Elginshire in 1545, dancing counterclockwise in your nighty around someone’s house was more than enough provocation.
There are a number of rather charming superstitions about clockwise and anticlockwise motion; one in Britain was that walking widdershins around a church three times was sufficient to summon the Devil (I haven’t had the nerve to give it a shot) and in general moving anticlockwise seems to have been considered unlucky (as an extension to the idea that anything to do with leftward motion is also unlucky; after all, the Latin for left is “sinister” and not for nothing does “right” mean both the direction, and that which is proper or correct).
As to why the relative motion of the Sun in the northern hemisphere should have come to dominate clock and watch design globally, the answer is probably that mechanical clocks were first widely developed in the northern hemisphere a simple case of history being written by the victors (or inventors, in this case. Geography is also at work; nearly 70% of the Earth’s land surface area is in the northern hemisphere as well). The subject would not have come up for many early clockmakers as many early clocks did not have hands at all, but rather, struck the hours on a bell or gong. However, that clockwise motion of clock and watch hands derives from astronomical observations in the northern hemisphere, and from the development of clockmaking in northern European nations, can seem culturally chauvinistic, and there have been attempts to make anticlockwise motion of the hands a standard in 2014, Bolivia’s national congress building in La Paz received a new clock whose hands move anticlockwise.
“I find the whole idea of time travel very unsettling if you take it to its logical conclusion. I think it might eventually be possible, but then what happens?”
In an interview with The Guardian, Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said, “We’re in the south and, as we’re trying to recover our identity, the Bolivian government is also recovering its sarawi, which means ‘way’ in Aymara,” he said. “In keeping with our sarawi or Nan, in Quechua our clocks should turn to the left.”
There are other public clocks with hands that move counterclockwise one of the most famous examples is the great clock of Paolo Uccello, inside the Duomo; and in Prague, the Jewish Town Hall tower has two clocks; one has Roman numerals, and runs clockwise; the other has Hebrew letters on the dial, and runs counterclockwise. Of the clock, Rabbi Harlan J. Wechsler has written, “Going counterclockwise is not entirely strange to Jews. Did you ever notice, for example, that when the Torah is marched around the synagogue, we march it counterclockwise to the ark which is, theoretically, at twelve o’clock? That custom comes from the procedures of the priests in the Temple who walked up the slanted front of the altar and then would proceed counterclockwise around its periphery performing their required functions.”
If you want a watch with counterclockwise hands, you must expect thin pickings; for obvious reasons this is not a stock-in-trade for serious watch brands (or even semi-serious ones). However, there are a few out there I’ve dug up a Swiss-made watch with the unlikely name of Bolshevik, which has counterclockwise hands (in homage to the Left, no doubt) and if you hunt around on Ebay, it is not difficult to find Seiko Lorus quartz “Goofy” watches, with counterclockwise hands (which is, you know, a goofy way for them to run, in case you missed the joke). In fact Ebay is a bit of a mother lode for “backwards watches.” The idea that clockwise motion represents the forward motion of time so powerful that it’s hard to look at such a watch or clock without having the slightly unsettling feeling that time is running backwards.
Forwards time travel is not difficult; the theory of relativity tells us (and it has been experimentally verified; in fact GPS depends on it) that if you are traveling faster than some outside reference frame, your clock runs more slowly and so, in essence, you are traveling into the future. Backwards time travel, by the way, actually seems to be permissible in relativity theory; there are certain solutions to its equations that are “closed timelike curves,” the traversing of which would be equivalent to backwards time travel. However, most physicists regard such solutions as theoretical rather than practical. A universe in which it can’t happen is a much tidier one; backwards time travel has the potential to produce nasty paradoxes. The most famous is that you go back in time and shoot your own grandfather; for that reason it’s thought to be in principle impossible. However, it can make for some thought-provoking if disturbing science fiction.