August 4, 2010

IIII versus IV on Clocks

Expressed as Roman numerals, the first twelve numbers are usually given as I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII. However, on many clock faces, when the numbers on the dial are in Roman numerals, IIII replaces IV.

In Pittsburgh, for example, the ornate Kaufmann's clock (above) at the corner of Smithfield Street and Fifth Avenue, shows IIII instead of IV.

There are many stories about why IIII appears so often as a replacement for IV on clocks but no definitive explanation. The tradition apparently has a long history and may even go back to sundials.

A large entrance clock created for Thomas Jefferson at his home Monticello features IIII instead of IV.

I tend to like the explanations that appeal to symmetry. Using IIII instead of IV means that the first four numbers—I, II, III, IIII—require only I; the next four—V, VI, VII, VIII—only I and V; and the final four—IX, X, XI, XII—only I and X.

A clock in Portland, Oregon.

Some also argue that, on a clock face, IIII is a better balance than IV for the VIII that appears across from it.

You can also count up how many of each character you need to create all the numbers. In the IIII case, the totals are 20 I's, 4 V's, and 4 X's (all even numbers), versus 17 I's, 5 V's, and 4 X's.

Some clocks do use IV instead of IIII, like the clock (above) in Pittsburgh's Market Square. The most famous example may be Big Ben in London.

The clock atop the tower at the University of Texas in Austin features IV instead of IIII.

So, what happens with Roman numerals on a 24-hour clock? What about sundials?

Photos by I. Peterson


Anonymous said...

'IIII V VI' is by much easier to read than 'IV V VI'... the numbers are upside down!

And yes I just posted on a 6 year dead thread.

Railbus said...

And yet, Anonymous, 'IX, X, XI" doesn't seem to raise a comparable concern (not disagreeing with you, just noting the inconsistency in passing).

Anonymous said...

Railbus I think Anonymous's point is that IV V VI are upside down, IX X XI are not

Adrian Tear said...

Peoples ignorance astounds me.
It is about symmetry.
IIII is how the Romans wrote 4.
18th century clock makers used IV for aesthetic reasons.
This is what I was talk in school 40 years ago.
Perhaps they should start teaching knowledge instead of exam passing,

Anonymous said...

Adrian, for all those ignorant people shouldn't that be: People's and taught.

Anonymous said...

I think, IIII WAS used to make readable even in a mirror. coz in a mirror IV would be read as VI

Anonymous said...

The reason is quite simple to all you brainiacs out there that can't figure it out it divides the clock face evenly three ways first four numbers are all in I next four numbers use the V the last four numbers use the X

Eleanor said...

Why so rude? This is an interesting subject. Why not discuss it in a civilised manner? We've all picked up different snippets of knowledge throughout our lives & we've all missed other bits. Being ignorant of one piece of knowledge does not make one an ignorant person. Please play nicely now.

Bill Chapin said...

Eleanor, Thank you so much for the reasoned and sensible comment!