Tag Archives: W.I. Milham

Horology 101: IIII vs IV


 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


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