Thursday, April 9, 2015

IIII for four o'clock

Clocktower clock, Maynard, MA
Admire the clock faces on the Clocktower clock. On each, four o'clock is designated by a Roman numeral "IIII." Which begs the question, why not "IV?"

The best-supported answer is that Romans did not always use Roman numerals the way we do. We use a subtractive mode (IV instead of IIII, IX instead of VIIII), which became the standard in Europe long after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. IIII was used on Roman era sundials, and appears to have been carried forward in time to Renaissance era clocks.

Another theory is that IIII provides more visual symmetry for the clock face, with clock makers conforming to this practice by design. With IIII for four and VIII for eight, the two numbers opposing each other are of similar width. Jibing with this concept is the fact that the same clocks that do not use subtractive mode for four do use it for nine (IX), creating a closer visual match for III on the other side. Finally, using IIII means that the first third of the clock face has I's, the next third has V's and the final third has X's. Internet searching yields a few other explanations, but these two - tradition and symmetry - make the most sense.

Clock faces incorporate other traditions. When the Hindu-Arabic numbering system (1,2,3,4,5...) is used, all numbers are oriented to be top end up when the face is viewed vertically, but Roman numerals (I,II,III,IIII,V...) are oriented to be top end up from the viewpoint of the center of the face, facing outward. Was this to be radially symmetric or functional? Likely the latter, carried forward in time by tradition. Think of walking up to a sundial; with your back to the sun the shadow cast by the upright will be opposite you and the number it points to will be right side up.

Clock hands proceed clockwise. In the Northern hemisphere a horizontal sundial will have twelve o'clock oriented due north. As the sun's position in the sky shifts from east to south to west the shadow will move around the top arc of the face left to right. When mechanical clocks were perfected in Europe the sundial's movement was mimicked for its familiarity. Hence, the worldwide convention is clockwise. (It is possible to buy novelty clocks that run counterclockwise.)

If sundials had spread to the rest of the world from the southern hemisphere then the sun's shadow would have proceeded across the top arc from right to left and mechanical clocks might well have followed that tradition to end up going the opposite direction of what we know accept. (Of course, this manner of movement would have been called "clockwise.")

The earliest mechanical clocks did not have hands or faces. In Catholic Europe, these devices were installed in church towers to automate ringing of bells meant to signify daily calls to prayer. Hours were signified by bells. Time was audible rather than visual.

Clocktower clock face from inside the clock
External clock faces and hands were added once clock mechanisms became more accurate. Standards of design now call for a short, stout hour hand, a longer, thinner minute hand and a very thin second hand, often a different color. Days have 24 hours but clock faces have only 12, mostly because a clock face with 24 numbers would be too crowded. Smart watches keep digital time (either 12- or 24-hour) but can display analog faces. The French Revolution brought the world the metric system of measuring distance and weight, but the metric clock (10 hours, 100 minutes per hour, 100 seconds per minute) was an epic fail.

Time used to be local. Starting in the 1800s, problems were caused by railroads traveling so far in a day as to be servicing cities each maintaining its own local time. The solution, reached in 1883, was to agree on dividing the U.S. into four time zones, with concord on accurate time within and between zones made possible by telegraph.  

Close-up of gears at the clock face
In print advertising for watches and clocks it is traditional to show the time as 10:10. Maynard's Town Seal shows the Clocktower clock at 12:10 to indicate the more than century long tradition - abandoned in 2011 - of the fire department conducting a daily test of the fire horn at ten minutes after noon.
I am really sad that the fire station's fire horn no longer sounds at 12:10. I found that 125 dB electric horns and a control box could be purchased from SENTRY SIREN and installed at the mill complex, perhaps on the Clocktower or chimney.   

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Snow Melt - The Great Uncovering

Salt crystal causing snow to melt
Seventeen years ago, in another snowy city (Chicago), our neighbor's son secretly smoked cigarettes and flipped the butts out his bedroom window onto our snow-covered yard. Of course, come spring's snow melt I confronted our neighbor with the evidence. His son spent some time on his hands and knees, sprucing up our lawn.

This spring, across eastern Massachusetts, many surprising things are becoming uncovered by snow melt. Morning dog walkers have reported a bonus of found silver - all the coins dropped into the snow as people tried to reach snow-bound parking meters. Dogs also left evidence in the snow - ____ that dropped out of sight at the time, but now reappears, first frozen, then softening. Smells less than expected, yes, because all the bacteria were killed by the cold, but still visibly offensive.

Garbage has surfaced, too. Soda cans, scraps of paper waste, plus various and diverse car parts left behind from winter's accidents. Those with spring clean-up in their hearts are advised to set out on street, path and trail with plastic bags and glove clad hands.  

Dirty snow is closer to road
Since fresh snow was sparse after the spate of big storms, what remains has taken on a darker hue. The blackest snow starts at road's edge, then fades in intensity by six or seven feet out. The source of all this darkness is an aerosol of shredded tire particles, residue of oil leaks, asphalt dust, road sand and exhaust condensate. And this is why cities now refrain from slinging street snow into rivers and lakes and the ocean. It's better when snow melts in place to convey its residue into the storm sewers and thence to the waste water treatment facility before discharge to the Assabet River.   

Copied from
Speaking of black snow, the groundskeepers at Fenway Park came up with an ingenious means of removing snow from the subnivean field. Rather than shoveling, which could have damaged the grass, they scattered two plus tons of black sand atop the snow. The boost to absorbed heat sped the melting process. Boston's baseball season opens April 13th.  

Bicyclists are suffering. This winter most towns never bothered to spread sand or salt, but the grit generated from uncounted potholes clogs the margins of streets, there to abrade bicycle chains and sprockets until street sweeping cleans and/or spring rains washes it all away. And yes, streets suffered. When water seeps into crevices the subsequent freezing into ice under asphalt splits and shatters the pavement, leaving potholes aplenty.  

Bowl of deer vertabrae (click on photos to enlarge)
This winter was seriously severe on the non-hibernating mammals of Massachusetts. Opossums, raccoons, skunks and deer all suffered. Last spring's fawns, not quite yearlings, were at greatest risk of starvation, but this spring's fawns will be at risk if their mothers cannot find enough green browse to nurse successfully. Woods walking with an eye out for scavenging crows and vultures may lead you to a decomposing winter-killed deer carcass, perhaps in time to salvage a few bones. Advice here - repeated days-long soaks in water followed by soaks in hydrogen peroxide leaves bones smooth to the touch.  

Lastly, the seasonality of flowers has been condensed, so that rather than having snowdrop, crocus, daffodil and tulip blooms spread out over six to ten weeks, all will be in flower almost all at once. Think if it as a symphony of saturated color, blessed by spring rains.

 Yes, all the sibilant "s" sounds of this column were deliberate. Because it's s-s-s-s-spring.  

Skunk cabbage spathe melting snow
Bonus photo - skunk cabbage is an extremely early blooming plant in the wetlands of New England. What is visible in this photo is the spathe - special leaves that enclose the flower, called the spadix. The plant generates heat (hence the melted snow). The air space inside the spathe will be 15 to 30 degrees higher than the outside temperatures. Heat protects the flower from freezing at night. Furthermore, the combination of warmth and rotting-flesh odor attracts the flies that will be fooled into the task of fertilization. This photo taken April 3, 2015 at the wet area at the back of Carbone Park, across Concord Street from ArtSpace/Acme Theatre, Maynard, MA.