An hourglass (or sandglass, sand timer, sand clock or egg timer) is a device used to measure the passage of time. It comprises two glass bulbs connected vertically by a narrow neck that allows a regulated flow of a substance (historically sand) from the upper bulb to the lower one. Typically the upper and lower bulbs are symmetric so that the hourglass will measure the same duration regardless of orientation. The specific duration of time a given hourglass measures is determined by factors including the quantity and coarseness of the particulate matter, the bulb size, and the neck width.
Depictions of an hourglass as a symbol of the passage of time are found in art, especially on tombstones or other monuments, from antiquity to the present day. The form of a winged hourglass has been used as a literal depiction of the well-known Latin epitaph tempus fugit ("time flies").
Little written evidence exists to explain why its external form is the shape that it is. The glass bulbs used, however, have changed in style and design over time. While the main designs have always been ampoule in shape, the bulbs were not always connected. The first hourglasses were two separate bulbs with a cord wrapped at their union that was then coated in wax to hold the piece together and let sand flow in between. It was not until 1760 that both bulbs were blown together to keep moisture out of the bulbs and regulate the pressure within the bulb that varied the flow.
While some early hourglasses actually did use sand as the granular mixture to measure time, many did not use sand at all. The material used in most bulbs was a combination of "powdered marble, tin/lead oxides, and pulverized, burnt eggshell". Over time, different textures of granule matter were tested to see which gave the most constant flow within the bulbs. It was later discovered that for the perfect flow to be achieved the ratio of granule bead to the width of the bulb neck needed to be 1/12 or more but not greater than 1/2 the neck of the bulb.
Hourglasses were an early dependable and accurate measure of time. The rate of flow of the sand is independent of the depth in the upper reservoir, and the instrument will not freeze in cold weather. From the 15th century onwards, hourglasses were being used in a range of applications at sea, in the church, in industry, and in cookery.
During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, 18 hourglasses from Barcelona were in the ship's inventory, after the trip had been authorized by King Charles I of Spain. It was the job of a ship's page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship's log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, as the sun would be at its zenith. A number of sandglasses could be fixed in a common frame, each with a different operating time, e.g. as in a four-way Italian sandglass likely from the 17th century, in the collections of the Science Museum, in South Kensington, London, which could measure intervals of quarter, half, three-quarters, and one hour (and which were also used in churches, for priests and ministers to measure lengths of sermons).
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