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Students may ponder usage of numerals on timepiece

December 7, 2006

Walking past the train station clock on campus mall, UW-River Falls students may find themselves questioning the education they received about the use of Roman numerals.

The 4 o’clock hour on the face of the timepiece is represented with the Roman numeral IIII instead of the commonly used IV. However, neither version of the number can factually be construed as the incorrect representation.

Director of Purchasing Tom Weiss was in charge of deciding what type of clock would be placed on the campus mall last spring. He said the train station-style clock was purchased from The Verdin Clock Company.

“It is very common on clocks ... to have replaced the IV with the IIII,” Weiss said, adding he has several Howard Miller pendulum clocks at his home that represent the 4 o’clock hour in the same fashion.

Marsie Rowan, a marketing representative for The Verdin Clock Company, reaffirmed what Weiss had said.

“It’s traditional for the ‘four’ on clocks to be represented as IIII,” she said.

This trend in numerical history can be seen from coast to coast and around the world.

If you happen to visit the Franklin Mint in Beverly Hills, Calif., you will find that 4 o’clock on the timepiece is represented with IIII. The same is true of the clock that stands in the courtyard at Merrimack College in Andover, Mass.

The more commonly taught version of the Roman numeral IV can be seen on one of Britain’s well-known tourist attractions, Big Ben, which was completed between 1858 and 1859.

London is neighbor to the Greenwich Observatory, where another famous timepiece is displayed. A 24-hour Galvanic-magnetic clock, known as the Master Clock, represents the fourth hour as IIII. The clock displays Greenwich Mean Time, or World Time, which, according to the Greenwich Mean Time Web site, is “the basis of every world time zone, which sets the time of day and is at the centre of the time zone map.”

In Ancient Rome, Roman numerals were used as the standard numbering system, as well as for everyday arithmetic.

The practice of subtractive notation guided early Romans in laying out the guidelines for what many have come to know as the proper form of Roman numerical notation.

Though these guidelines were created, some Romans did not abide by them when building the now historical Colloseum.

If you have ever been to the Colloseum, you may notice there are 33 archways still standing, and each one is numbered. Arch 29 is represented as XXVIIII, arch 54 as LIIII and arch 44 as XLIIII. Clearly, the use of subtractive notation went out the window while the monument was being constructed. This would lead one to believe that there really is no right or wrong way to utilize Roman numerals.

In subtractive notation, it is difficult to perform mathematical operations on Roman numerals. In order to ease the process, the removal of subtractive notation is necessary.

Many other theories have been given as to why there are two differing opinions as to how four should be represented in Roman numerals.

In his book, Time & Timekeepers, Willis I. Milham, suggests IIII is commonly used because it is aesthetically pleasing.

“On the other side of the clock dial the VIII is the heaviest number, consisting of four heavy strokes and one light one, as it is usually made,” he states in the book. “It would destroy the symmetry to have the IV with only two heavy strokes on the other side. Thus IIII with four heavy strokes is much to be preferred. The change may therefore have been made for reasons of symmetry.”

Members of an alt.horology newsgroup have devoted a page of their Web site, Clocks and Time, to the discussion on the IV vs. IIII debate.

So as time goes on, so will the long-running debate over which Roman numeral representation is correct. Use your own judgment, because neither answer is right or wrong.

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