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What might a clock face look like in Middle Earth, assuming a device similar to a typical clock in the real world? Lots of sub-questions have arisen.

  • What kind of subdivisions would there be? Are there 24 hours in a day? 60 minutes in an hour? 60 seconds in a minute?
  • Would a clock run clockwise or counter-clockwise?
  • Would any numbers on the clock be written in base 10 or base 12?
  • Would numbers be written with tengwar numerals? Cirth? Something else?
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    How in the world is this "primarily opinion based"??? We really need a "voting to close proficiency license"! Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 3:24
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    Indeed, this question should not be closed. It's hard to answer definitively, but evidence does exist Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 4:26
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    The question asks what clocks look like in Middle-earth. Clocks exist in The Hobbit, which is set in Middle-earth. The man who created Middle-earth even drew a clock. Thus, the question is not opinion-based. It is answerable.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:03
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    I would say that by definition, a clock runs clockwise... Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 7:45
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    @Angew: But the definition of "clockwise" is culture-specific, so... Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 11:46

2 Answers 2

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Unfortunately this is a very difficult question to answer, partly because of Tolkien's framing device.

The in-universe origin for the Tolkien Legendarium is that Bilbo and Frodo wrote down their stories (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, plus Bilbo's translation of Elvish legends that would become The Silmarillion) in the in-universe Common Speech. Tolkien later discovers these ancient texts, and laboriously translates them into English.

This unfortunately means that it's hard to take any mention of timekeeping at face-value, because a reference like the following one in Fellowship of the Ring:

'Where am I, and what is the time?' [Frodo] said aloud to the ceiling. 'In the House of Elrond, and it is ten o'clock in the morning.' said [Gandalf].

Fellowship of the Ring Book II Chapter 1: "Many Meetings"

necessarily comes with the caveat that we don't know to what extent Tolkien is exercising some discretion as a translator1

Having said that, what do we know?

Are there clocks in Middle-earth?

Yes. There's a mention of a clock in Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo leaves the Ring at the very beginning:

Bilbo took out the envelope, but just as he was about to set it by the clock, his hand jerked back, and the packet fell on the floor.

Fellowship of the Ring Book I Chapter 1: "A Long-Expected Party"

This clock is referenced several more times in The Hobbit. Even if we allow this to be the translator taking liberties, it's very probable that Bilbo had some kind of personal time-keeping device. Tolkien does us one better, with a 1937 illustration of Bilbo's front hall featuring at least one wall-mounted clock2:

Bilbo's front hall

How granularly is time subdivided?

Looking at the sketch above, there do appear to be two individual hands indicating a concept related to hours and minutes.

We can further support this with references to various times made by the hobbits. Pippin, for example, wants his breakfast at 9:30:

'What's beautiful about it?' said Pippin, peering over the edge of his blanket with one eye. 'Sam! Get breakfast ready for half-past nine! Have you got the bath-water hot!'

Fellowship of the Ring Book I Chapter 3: "Three is Company"

Pippin also makes reference to minutes in The Two Towers, telling the story of his first encounter with Gandalf the White:

'"Treebeard," said Gandalf. "I need your help. You have done much, but I need more. I have about ten thousand Orcs to manage."

'Then those two went off and had a council together in some corner. It must have seemed very hasty to Treebeard, for Gandalf was in a tremendous hurry, and was already talking at a great pace, before they passed out of hearing. They were only away a matter of minutes, perhaps a quarter of an hour. Then Gandalf came back to us, and he seemed relieved, almost merry. He did say he was glad to see us, then.

The Two Towers Book III Chapter 9: "Flotsam and Jetsam"

There is only one reference to seconds, as when Merry threatens Bill Ferny to get into Bree:

'Bill Ferny,' said Merry, 'if you don’t open that gate in ten seconds, you'll regret it. I shall set steel to you, if you don't obey. And when you have opened the gates you will go through them and never return. You are a ruffian and a highway-robber.'

Return of the King Book VI Chapter 8: "The Scouring of the Shire"

Regarding the exact composition of days, hours, and minutes: we can't be sure. There's some information about calendar deficits in Appendix D that could potentially be used to calculate how many seconds in a minute and how many minutes in an hour, but I don't have a head for those sorts of calculations.

What script would the numbers be written in?

Let me first point out that clocks of this sort seem to be unique to hobbits3, so this part comes down to what writing system hobbits use.

This is never stated explicitly, but it's most likely the Tengwar characters; in Appendix E, Tolkien says that all cultures in the Third Age used writing systems borrows from the Eldar, and that the Tengwar was used pretty much everywhere the Common Speech was used:

The scripts and letters used in the Third Age were all ultimately of Eldarin origin, and already at that time of great antiquity.

[...]

The later letters, the Tengwar of Fëanor, were largely a new invention, though they owed something to the letters of Rúmil. They were brought to Middle-earth by the exiled Noldor, and so became known to the Edain an the Númenoreans. In the Third Age their use had spread over much the same area as that in which the Common Speech was known.

Return of the King Appendix E "Writing and Spelling" II: "Writing"

Would the clocks be in base 10 or base 12?

This is a surprisingly fascinating question.

In Appendix D, Tolkien suggests that the Elves prefer a duodecimal (base 12) number system:

It seems clear that the Eldar in Middle-earth, who had, as Samwise remarked, more time at their disposal, reckoned in long periods, and the Quenya word yén, often translated 'year' (I, p. 496), really means 144 of our years. The Eldar preferred to reckon in sixes and twelves as far as possible.

Return of the King Appendix D "The Calendars"

However the Númenóreans weren't keen on that calendar system, and modified it to one that would be more familiar to us, and a note in Unfinished Tales indicates that they preferred a decimal system:

Measures of distance are converted as nearly as possible into modern terms. "League" is used because it was the longest measurement of distance: in Númenórean reckoning (which was decimal) five thousand rangar (full paces) made a lár, which was very nearly three of our miles.

Unfinished Tales Part III: The Third Age Chapter 1: "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields" Appendix: "Númenórean linear measures"

From Appendix D we learn that the hobbits modified their calendar from the Númenóreans:

The Hobbits were conservative and continued to use a form of the Kings' Reckoning adapted to fit their own customs.

Return of the King Appendix D "The Calendars"

Thus it's most likely that it was base 10.


1 Darth Melkor (user8719) talks about this issue a bit more in his answer here

2 The other object is possibly another clock, as suggested by Michael Martinez, but DJClayworth in comments suggests that it's more likely a barometer

3 Elves and Men seem to use a system of bells for keeping time, and it always seems to either mark events rather than time (as with the Elves) or reckon hours relative to the sun (as in Minas Tirith and among the Rohirrim). Unfortunately we don't know what the Dwarves use for timekeeping.

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    I'm pretty sure only one of those is a clock. The one by the door is much more likely a barometer. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:19
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    With appropriate respect, I believe Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez is wrong. Being a Tolkien scholar does not necessarily make you a barometer expert, and Martinez says he knows "very little about the history of clocks". Here are some wall barometer images for comparison Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:36
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    I love all your answers, but I have here to side with @DJClayworth comment, near the door it is most likely a barometer. Look at that old english style barometers : charlesedwin.com/brmcat.htm#don Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 6:22
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    I would also say the doorside thing is a barometer. If we interpret it as a clock, it shows different time than the one on the wall. Isn't that strange for the respected and orderly (pre-adventure) Mister Baggins? Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 7:49
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    the other obvious thing about it being a clock on the right wall and NOT near the door : the balancing mechanism to make the hours/minutes (/seconds) pass! There is no such visible mechanism on the one near the door (and it looks a bit small to be "internal"), and I assume the hobbits didn't have batteries yet ^^ Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 8:03
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This is indeed a difficult question to answer, and Jason Baker has already done a pretty good job answering what can be said, but I'd like to share an additional tidbit about what Tolkien has said about time subdivisions in Valinor.

Valinor was covered by a dome, and thus unaffected by the sun-day. Instead their basic unit of time was a Valian Day, which was equal to one solar year.

In a revised scheme – in which the Sun and Moon are a primeval part of Arda, established before Arda was inhabitable – the basic time, even in Aman, must be the Sun-year, since this governs all growth, be it slow, normal, or quick. But the sun-day need not be observed, since Valinor was domed over.

Hence the basic equivalent of Valian Time and Middle-earth Time (VT and MT) will be:

1 Valian Day (or Tree-day) = 1 Sun-year
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Valinorian Time-Divisions"

One Valian Day was measured by the light of the two trees, and made to be exact with sun year.

But since the light of Valinor was quite independent of earth-rotation, and depended on the length of the light of the Trees – which from the opening of Telperion to the closing of Laurelin occupied 1 Day or Sun-year exactly – all smaller fractions of time were reckoned in descending twelfths. These were, of course, exact and accurate for Valinorian purposes, but owing to the inexactitude of the Sun-year in relation to earth-rotations, were complicated if stated in relation to Middle-earth times (in days, hours, seconds).
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Valinorian Time-Divisions"

Each "Valian Day" is then divided into twelve "Valian Hours" (each equal to about one month), and then so on for another seven time units, each one twelfth of the previous, with the final one, a "Valian Minim", being equal to 1/14th of a second.

At the present rate of 365 days 5 hrs. 48 mins. 46 secs. to 1 year...The nearest approximate equivalents are thus:

Valian Division   Equivalent
Hour              1 month (30 1/2 days)
Prime             2 1/2 days
Second            5 hours
Terce             25 mins.
Quart             2 mins. (2 1/10)
Quint             10 secs.
Sext              1 sec. (10/12)
Minim             1/14 sec.

In the narrative time lengths of less than the Valian Second are seldom mentioned; and less than the Valian Quart (2 mins.) practically never.
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Valinorian Time-Divisions"

There is no evidence of clocks in Valinor, but if they existed they would have probably used these units.


It's also worth noting that in calculating how some of these smaller units related to our seconds, Tolkien is said to have calculated a division problem by hand up to 360 decimal places, until he found where the numbers began to repeat.

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  • Since I first asked this six years ago, I drew a base 12 tengwar clock face I use as my avatar. Your answer alerted me to not having updated my avatar on this SE site, so I just did that. Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 19:31
  • If you take a Valian day and keep dividing by 12, you are unlikely to hit upon a unit of time that coincides with sunrise to sunrise (a regular "day") even if a regular day is not 24 of our hours. It would be useful in practice to have a clock that is based on a sunrise-to-sunrise day. But maybe that is only true for non-elves (as in, maybe elves have an innate sense for how much of the day has passed and don't need clocks). Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 19:34
  • @alex.jordan - I have added some more quotes to my answer to address this. Valinor was domed over and thus unaffected by the sun-day. Their light came from the two trees, which were made to correspond with the sun-year.
    – ibid
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 19:56

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