Clocks, Bells and Watches

Allen Mordica

Clocks, Bells and Watches- What do these things have in common to the sailor? Let's start with the clock.

Ever since ships first started to travel farther than they could get back to in a day, especially heading east or west, accurate timepieces were necessary so that mariners could track the distance they travelled in a day. The most accurate clocks of the ancient days were sundials. These worked fine on land, but if used aboard when the ship got underway, pictching and rolling rendered them pretty much worthless.

The best combination of portability, consistent accuracy and reliability at sea was achieved early on in the hourglass. The name is somewhat of a misnomer as the most popular size of hourglass ran out in one half hour. The glass would be placed near the steering station, be it tiller or wheel, and also near the ship's bell.

The quartermaster stood his four-hour watch on the quarterdeck, and one of his responsibilities was to turn the glass every half hour precisely when the sand ran out. To signal the crew of the passing time, and let the captain down below know that his watch was being stood properly, the quartermaster would sound the ship's bell right after turning the glass.

Now, all this bell ringing could get confusing. To keep the time straight, the bell would be rung once on the half hour, twice when the full hour had passed, twice then once more when an hour and a half passed, and so on until the four-hour watch was complete, for a total of eight bells, four sets of two.

The four hour watch mentioned above was one of six watches stood daily. Each watch had it's own name, in the following order starting from midnight:

Midnight-4:00am -Midnight, or mid, watch

4:00-8:00am -Morning watch

8:00-Noon -Forenoon watch

Noon-4:00pm -Afternoon watch

4:00-8:00pm -Evening watch (this was further broken up into two 2 hour sub-watches, the dog watches, to allow the watch sections to eat the evening meal in two shifts, stagger or dog the watch rotation and prevent someone from standing the same watches day in and day out)

8:00pm-Midnight -Night watch

The combination of bell and watch gave the time of day. For example:

-5 bells in the morning watch- 6:30am

-3 bells in the afternoon watch- 1:30pm

-4 bells in the evening watch- 6:00pm, and time to dog the watch for dinner

This method of striking the bell survived the transition from hourglasses to chronometers, and is one of the basic aspects of life aboard ship, to be learned right away by a landsman. Some modern chronometers actually have a bell that rings the passing hours just like a miniature ship's bell.

One final note about chronometers; they were very rare and valuable items to have aboard, and were considered great prizes to take from a captured ship, much like capturing artillery guns in a land engagement. Capt. Raphael Semmes of the CSS Alabama was careful to note each one taken from captured prizes in the ship's log