Practical Use of Hourglasses

Used as egg timers, steeping timers, game timers and
even as nautical speed calculators, sand timers are
always decorative and still useful instruments.

Even though, as a precision instrument, the sand glass has long been replaced by
modern and technologically superior time keeping devices, It's one of the few inventions of the past that, practically unimproved and unchanged from its original design, survives (and even thrives) in the "memory chip" era. Why?

Romantic and Nostalgic Decorative Item:

Fantasy capturing and somewhat enchanting too, this old ... and forever young time keeping device is as popular today as it was at its origin.

Wood, marble, brass, pewter and silver are some of the most commonly used materials to create artistic frames for decorative hourglasses. While they come in many shapes and sizes, from the classic round bases/three-column model to hanging, swinging, cubical and abstract designs to fit any decor, they all share the same "sand glass" original concept and they all exercise the same mystical attraction.

Once a customer told me that he wanted a "slow moving, long lasting" hourglass because watching the dropping sand was as relaxing for him as watching the flames
of a fireplace!

Egg Timers and Game Timers:

If you run a survey on the practical use of hourglasses, the most popular answer will probably be: "To time an egg", referring to the ever popular three-minute egg timer.
A close runner up answer would be: "To time board games".

While most egg timers come with standard 3-minute cylindrical or blown glass timers, their design, value and size vary widely as many different materials and artistic concepts have been used to create this classic "old timer".

Game timers, on the other hand, come with various time settings (from 30 seconds to five minutes). They are usually rugged and inexpensively made units designed to endure and survive the use and abuse that's normally generated during the confusion and excitement of board game parties.

Steeping Timers:

Hourglasses that are used for steeping tea and certain types of coffee are practically
a combination of egg timers and game timers in a single frame. They can be as simple as three cylindrical sand glasses on a plain frame or blow glass with artistically elaborate gold and silver settings.

Since different blends of coffee or tea require different steeping times, it is imperative to have a combination of timers available for the "steeping time" of the occasion.

For this reason, steeping timer combos come with three sand timers: A three-minute, a four-minute and a five-minute. This allows for any combination of time, from one-minute to infinity in one minute increments.

While timing three, four and five-minute is self evident, to steep for one minute, insert the tea or coffee at the end of the three-minute sand glass and remove it at the end of the four-minute sand glass. To steep for two minutes, insert the tea or coffee at the end of the three-minute sand glass and remove it at the end of the five-minute sand glass.

To time periods of six-minute or longer, it will be necessary to turn over the sand timers and repeat the process using the same principles used for the first five minutes.

How To Use a Sand Timer To Calculate Nautical Speed:

For this purpose it's best to use a sturdy, well protected and slim (for easy grip) unit with one-minute, or longer, sand time (as a rule of thumb, the shorter your boat, the shorter the time of the hourglass should be).

This type of sand timer was used by early sailors to determine sailing speed by following this simple technique:

A life saver (or other floating device) attached to a cord with knots placed at measured intervals was tossed overboard at Stern. A sailor, positioned at Aft with the end of the rope, would retrieve the lose cord and count the knots as the floater came closer while a second sailor, holding the sand timer tight in his fist to avoid dropping it, gave the end of time signal. The number of knots retrieved in the one-minute time would then be used by the duty officer to calculate the speed in nautical miles.

Not quite a scientifically exact method but, repeated several times in different headings and weather conditions, it resulted in a fairly accurate average speed calculation.

Can Hour Glasses Have Other Modern Uses?

Absolutely. While the Swiss clock and quartz technology have relegated the sand timer to the "antique items" category, there are other applications that do benefit from their highly visual impact:

Lawyers favor the use of half-hour models during consultation and large, five to fifteen-minute units are used to time speakers in a conference room.

I'm sure there are other applications where the use of a sand timer would be more advantageous over the clock. If you use a sand timer for other purposes, please share your knowledge with us by contacting


About The Author:
Ettore del Pozzo is owner and operator of and
Both websites offer a vast selection of Egg Timers, Game Timers, Steeping Timers and large decorative Hourglasses with various time settings.

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