Did you ever notice that 4?


Apparently, I’m one of a scant few who sees more than just time in the face of a clock.  Let me ask you one little question, to see if you’re also an eurodite chronophile.

On a roman-numeral numbered clock face, how SHOULD the number ‘4’ be written?

If you know your timepiece lore, this question would be either easy or controversial.  If you know your roman-numerals but not your clocks, you just answered wrong.  If you know neither, then sit back and learn, you lovely, young and innocent thing, you!

Now, as we know, roman-numerals run in a systematic sequence.

I = 1, II = 2, III = 3, IV = 4, V =5, VI = 6, and so forth, continuing on into constructions like XLII for 42 and the utterly ridiculous  MDCCCLXXVIII for 1878.

Knowing this, one would reason that the “4” on a clock should be “IV” as it would be for anything else.  However, humanity is far too goofy for that.  I’ve seen both “IV” and “IIII” on clocks from all different eras.  When I started to build the cover and promotional images for Twist, I realized that I had to find a rule to follow.

There are actually many, many stories and supposed reasons for why the ‘4’s would be written differently.  One story says that Louis XIV (14th, in case you have a headache) insisted it should be written ‘IIII’ and, being the king, was not to be corrected.  Which is ironic, given the way we write his name.  I’ve also read that some clock makers simply like the look, one way or another, for reasons of symmetry.  Yet another theory says that it’s just plain easier to make simple iron bars than “V”s for the faces of large tower clocks.

By far my favorite theory hankers back to the very dawn of time keeping.  It seems that the Romans were the first to write out “IIII” on sundials.  Maybe it was because “IV” was Jupiter’s nickname.  Maybe it was because they liked the symmetry too.  Maybe they just couldn’t be bothered to be consistent.  Either way, once people started to make clocks instead of sundials, they left a little homage to those first great chronologists. on purpose.

And so, I decided to join the ranks of the “IIII”ers.  But is it really right or wrong to use either one?  It certainly isn’t a mistake, either way.  It’s just one more reason to gaze pensively into the beautiful faces of old clocks and pocket watches whenever you get the chance…

(click for original size)

          For more reading on this curious idiosyncrasy, try these helpful links.

QuickFacts : Introduction to Clocks

UBR FAQ: Roman IIII vs. IV on Clock Dials

WikiAnswers page on the subject


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