Horology 101: IIII vs IV

08 Feb


 Back when I was in elementary school I could never understand why we needed to know roman numerals, afterall, we didn’t live in Rome and probably never would.

I wondered why if we were talking about numbers, were we mixing letters up with numbers. I learned what I needed to know at the time about Roman Numerals and forgot what I didn’t need to know.

This past Christmas my kids gave me this clock for our new family room. My daughters decided that it would fit with the decor and their budget. 

When I opened the clock and looked at it something just didn’t look right to me.  I started to go over the roman numerals in my head…I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII,IX, X, XI, XII. 

Reassured that I could still remember them I looked again at my clock and decided that Better Homes and Gardens had it wrong when they made my clock. Everyone knows from elementary school that four in roman numerals is represented by IV. On my clock it is IIII.  I knew it looked wrong, but was it? Is there some special rule for clocks? I had to know.

I did some investigating about clock dials although not very thorough and found one story for the reason that they use IIII rather than IV on a clock dial. It goes like this according to W.I. Milham “”There is a story that a famous clockmaker had constructed a clock for Louis XIV, king of France. The clockmaker had naturally used IV for four. When the clock was shown to the king, he remarked that IIII should have been used instead of IV. When it was explained to him that IV was correct, he still insisted, so that there was nothing to do but change the clock dial. This introduced the custom of using IIII for four.”  I thought it’s possible, afterall, who would want to mess with a king’s wishes.

Another theory was provided by Joerg Haus who said that in the German watch magazine “Uhrenmagazin” the widely accepted argument is the following: “Imagine a watch face with roman numerals, and look at the numerals opposite to each other – all of them are in perfect balance, except for the ‘heavy’ VIII and the ‘light’ IV; optical balance is re-established by printing an also ‘heavy’ IIII.”

He also said ” This may sound rather silly, but for a similar reason you’ll see many watches/clocks displayed on photographs with their hands showing 10:09; it’s simply the most friendly’ clock.”  I like the idea of a friendly clock but that’s just me.  Most of the time when I look at the clock when the alarm is going off it doesn’t look  friendly.  An alarm time of  10:09 am looks better to me than 5:45am any day.

The next reason for the use of Four I’s instead of IV for the “four” was put forth by Ray Mialki.  He said that the reason was due to the casting process.  “Since some numerals were cast out of metal, or carved out of wood or bone, you need 20 I’s, 4 V’s, and 4 X’s, even numbers of each, if you use four I’s for “four”. The molds would produce a long centre rod, with 10 I’s, 2 V’s, and 2 X’s on each side.”  The practical side of me like that there would be a reason purely for efficiency.

Probably one of the more interesting ideas came from Tom Frank who stated according to his high school Latin teacher “the reason clocks use IIII vice IV is out of respect for the Roman God Jupiter, whose name, in Latin, begins IV (the V being the U we now use, the I the J; sort of an abbreviation).”  On this same note Jeffrey A. Harvey put it this way ” This is apparently because “IV” is an abbreviation for “Jupiter” in Roman times. So they decided to use “IIII” so that their public clocks didn’t have “1 2 3 GOD 5…” written on them.”   I must have been sleeping through this part of class because I don’t remember an abbreviation for the Roman God Jupiter but there is a lot of things that I once knew but no longer do.

My idea for the reason of IIII vs IV is plain and simple. Someone made a mistake on a clock face and tried to use all the previous reasons to justify their mistake no matter how reasonable it may have sounded just so they wouldn’t have to do it over again. Have you ever seen clothes that have the stitching on the outside instead of the inside? I think someone had a warehouse of clothes that were sewn incorrectly and had to come up with a marketing idea to cover their mistake and potential losses. 

That’s just my thoughts on horology this morning.  Probably something you never had any real desire to know but are now like me and know just enough to be dangerous.


Posted by on February 8, 2011 in education, Photography, Reflections


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

22 responses to “Horology 101: IIII vs IV

  1. 36x37

    February 8, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Fascinating! Thanks for the morning info session, Jeanne. I love historical facts like this.

    I’m with you: I think someone made a mistake, but it makes a great story.

    Have a great Tuesday!

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

      Have a great Tuesday as well Maura. I’m always up for learning something new even if its something I may never use again but at least I took the time to answer a question I had. I loved libraries growning up and still do.

  2. Todd Pack

    February 8, 2011 at 9:22 am

    I remember in elementary school, I had a teacher who said sometimes it was IV and sometimes IIII and that she’d accept either one. Concerning the clock, my guess is that someone just thought it looked better that way.

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 9:53 am

      I am a visual person so the thought that someone did it that way because it looked better is just fine with me.

  3. planejaner

    February 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

    I love the walk throught the history of…time!
    Horology sounds naughty, though. 🙂
    blessings on your day–

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 9:52 am

      Just where is your mind Jane? I thought it sounded bad to but I love to increase my vocabulary with new words so decided to include it in the post. Blessings to you as well, Jeanne

  4. sunshineinlondon

    February 8, 2011 at 10:35 am

    This is such an interesting post, Jeanne. My favourite reason is that King Louis XIV insisted on IIII – no reason, he just said do it and they did it!
    I am going to take notice of more clock faces now. And thanks for increasing my knowledge of Roman! 🙂
    Sunshine xx

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 10:49 am

      Glad to make us all just a little bit smarter. I think that if a King told me to do something I would just do it.

  5. writerwoman61

    February 8, 2011 at 10:45 am

    I always say that I learn something new every day, Jeanne, and today I learned about numbers on clocks…thanks for the fascinating history lesson (and you know that I’ll have to check out the face on every clock I see that has Roman numerals on it, from now on!).


    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 10:52 am

      While I was doing research I found out that Big Ben has IV instead of the preferred IIII. I thought that was an interesting fact about a clock that is so popular. I wonder who made the decision about which way to put the numbers on Big Ben and was there any conflict about it.

  6. nrhatch

    February 8, 2011 at 11:13 am

    Thanks, Jeanne.

    I expect that balance and aesthetics are behind the practice ~ IIII looks better tha IV given the way clocks are set up.

    Now . . . what about sun dials? Tomorrow’s lesson, perhaps?

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 11:17 am

      I read those thoughts about balance and aesthetics in more than one location. I read something about sundials but just can’t recall what I read, my short term memory is getting worse. If I don’t use the information, I lose it.

  7. pearlsandprose

    February 8, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Very interesting! I must have been living under a rock, because I never noticed the IIII on clocks. That is just wrong. The Louis XIV story sounds the most plausible to me too.

    I always disliked trying to decipher the date a movie was made, and was so happy when we hit 2000. Just “MM”!

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 11:58 am

      I’m with you on the trying to decipher. I recently read a post with regard to the next Super Bowl just using regular numbers instead of roman numerals.

  8. tedgriffith

    February 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    What a wonderful lesson!! Pesonally, I think the person used IIII because, like me, they were slightly dyslexic and couldn’t remember if it was IV or VI. (Just kidding about the reason, but I did have trouble with the order). Anyway, if you hadn’t mentioned it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. I rarely look at the numbers anymore on a clock, just the position of the hands.

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks Ted. I honestly never payed any attention until I looked at the clock my daughters gave me and something just didn’t look right. Now I will be watching clock faces more often now that I know it could be either way.

      • Thomas Stazyk

        February 8, 2011 at 12:51 pm

        Thanks, that was interesting. I vaguely remember being taught (when I was about IV) that either IV or IIII was acceptable but we never knew why.

  9. flyinggma

    February 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I’m still not sure I know why but there are a lot of ideas out there why it could be one or the other.

  10. Carol Ann Hoel

    February 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Hm. I guess we shall each pick the account that sounds best to us. I pick the one that enhances the appearance of the clock. The XIII balances with the IIII better than with IV, making the clock look more attractive, more poetic, more scientifically viable, perhaps. If I had made a mistake that produced a warehouse full of error clocks, I might have pointed out how much better the clocks looked with their improved faces. *Wink*

    Thank you for doing the research to give us something to think about. Blessings to you, Jeanne…

    • flyinggma

      February 8, 2011 at 10:13 pm

      I like how you think Carol! 🙂

  11. JWH III

    January 13, 2012 at 11:09 am

    FYI – I’m the 3rd, my son of course is the 4th…. I use III as he uses IV when we write our name completely out.

    He was born in Italy, and of course wouldn’t you know it – there in the middle of this small town is a church, with a bell tower and clocks facing in two directions – North and South.
    The North face has the I I I I and the South face has the IV. Ever since my son’s birth, I’ve found this topic VERY fasinating; so I continued to look at all European town clocks… and guess what – SAME all over the place…

    Even on my older Sprint ‘flip’ phone – I had set the front screen to show as a clock with roman numbers – (to my amazement) it had IV – BUT – when I flipped the phone open and the clock appeared with an I I I I….

    Oh and the best part about IV and IIII is that – at any bar – it is a GREAT way to win a bet! Cause Most Folks will say the clock would have an IV and NOT I I I I … food for thought.


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