Extraordinary Stories

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Saturday, December 10, 2016

The "Time And Time Again: Part III - Roman Numeral Debacle" Story

The new clock in downtown Lancaster, PA.
It was an ordinary day.  Standing at Penn Square in downtown Lancaster, PA with my granddaughter Camille taking a photograph of the new clock that stands there.  Clock was donated by the Charles F. Snyder Funeral Home and recently erected in the square to ... (1) help people see the time or (2) create a controversy as to the Roman Numerals on the face of the large clock.  Well, it definitely gives you the time of day and yes ... it really makes you wonder why the Roman numerals are they way they are on the face of the clock.  If you are familiar with Roman Numerals, you know that: 1=I, 2=II, 3=III, 4=IV, 5=V, 6=VI, 7=VII, 8=VIII, etc.  Seems the clock downtown has IIII for the number 4 instead of IV.  Many people were wondering if it was a mistake.  
Part of an entire wall of clocks
at the National Watch and Clock
Museum.  Not a single clock had
IV for the Roman Number 4.
Lancaster's newspaper ran a short story on the reason for the alleged gaffe while on my recent visit to the National Watch and Clock Museum in nearby Columbia I had the chance to ask my guide about the reason for changing the number for IV to IIII.   He came up with a variety of answers which all seemed to make sense to me.  Seems clock makers and watchmakers have been using the IIII instead of the IV for several hundred years.  It really is a matter of aesthetics and visual symmetrical balance.  By using IIII it makes the dial look visually better and more legible, since it is balanced with the VIII on the opposite side of the dial where the number 8 would be.  It is called a "watchmaker's four".  And he continued with ... It's also the way its always been done as far back as 1550 and probably earlier.  Originally it was common to use IIII to represent four because IV represented the Roman god Jupiter whose Latin name, IVPPITER, begins with IV.  Romans were hesitant to put part of their god's name on a sundial, so IIII became the preferred way to write a #4.  But then he also pointed out that IV wasn't used until after the fall of the Western Roman Empire since they didn't use the subtractive method in Roman Numerals when writing numbers.  Way back then the number 9 was even written VIIII.  Lost yet?  
I'm holding my grandfather's pocketwatch that has
the Roman Numeral IIII in place for the #4.
Then he said King Louis XIV of France preferred IIII instead of IV for probably the same reason as Jupiter wouldn't have wanted two letters from his name on a sundial.  Do all these explanations make sense?  Maybe the IIII is used for the same reason that all clocks and watches run clockwise!  Or do they?  Does it really matter?  As I walked though the museum I had a hard time finding a clock or watch that didn't have Roman Numerals let alone used IV for the number 4.  Very interesting!!  So, as far as trying to explain why the clock in Lancaster's square had IIII, there is no good, or at least reasonable, explanation.  At least Camille didn't care how it was written.  Made sense to her that it was IIII.  "Looks better that way," she said.  Ditto!  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.  PS - click on photos to enlarge them.


This is one of the few clocks or watches in the entire museum that used numbers that are in use today.  I didn't look at every single watch and clock in the museum, but didn't see many that didn't use Roman Numerals.

4 comments:

  1. How can I get in touch with you about a broom?
    My name is Colin Yablonski and I would like to get a fireplace broom repaired as a gift for my father.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really can't help you with a broom, but the broom-maker at Landis Valley Farm Museum could either repair your broom or sell you a new one. Google "Landis Valley Farm Museum" and open their site or call 717-569-0401, Ext. 216 and they can give you the name of the broom maker. If you are local to the Lancaster, PA area, just visit the museum and visit the broom maker yourself. Hope I have been helpful. Good luck with your problem.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really can't help you with a broom, but the broom-maker at Landis Valley Farm Museum could either repair your broom or sell you a new one. Google "Landis Valley Farm Museum" and open their site or call 717-569-0401, Ext. 216 and they can give you the name of the broom maker. If you are local to the Lancaster, PA area, just visit the museum and visit the broom maker yourself. Hope I have been helpful. Good luck with your problem.

    ReplyDelete