Why do clocks with Roman numerals use “IIII” instead of “IV”?

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Dear Cecil: I hate to see you wasting your time on the insipid questions your readers have been submitting lately. Permit me to pose a question that will have a meaningful impact on today’s social problems: Why do clocks that have Roman numerals on the faces always show the number four as IIII instead of IV? Jerry M., Hollywood, California

Cecil replies:

Finally, somebody with a sense of perspective.

I hate to be a wimp about these things, but I’m going to have to fall back on that old standby: They do it that way because that’s the way they’ve always done it, at least as far back as 1550, and probably earlier. Many clock historians claim that IIII is supposed to provide artistic balance, since you mentally pair it off with VIII on the other side of the dial. (Presumably you see how the otherwise economical IV would have trouble holding its own in this respect.) The only problem with this theory is that the Romans apparently never used IV — it’s a relatively modern invention. It’s possible, in other words, that old-time clock makers used IIII because it was considered perfectly proper usage for all purposes, horological or otherwise, at the time.

My friend David Feldman, in his book Why Do Clocks Run Clockwise, cites an expert who says medieval clockmakers used IIII so as not to confuse the illiterate. You could count, “One, two, three, four! Hey, it’s four o’clock!” whereas having to subtract I from V to arrive at the same result was beyond your mental capabilities.

Well, maybe. But let’s think about this. The peasants couldn’t handle IV, but somehow the IX for 9 posed no problems? Did only literate people go out after eight o’clock? Actually, as I read Dave more closely, he seems to be saying that at one time clockmakers used VIIII for 9. OK, but why do modern Roman numeral clocks use IIII and IX? Tragically, we may never know the truth. History can be like that.

A site for four I’s, Part One

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the use of Roman numeral IIII vs. IV on clocks, I noticed IIII on clocks a long time ago and when I happened to meet a clockmaker, I asked. His conjecture was as follows. Count the number of X’s, V’s, and I’s on a clock face that has IIII. You find you have four X’s, four V’s, and 20 I’s, or four identical sets of XVIIIII. Accordingly, if a metal worker in the early days of clockmaking had to make the numerals, it was easier and less wasteful of material to make four slugs for each clock face, each slug containing one X, one V, and five I’s.

— Peter L., professor of chemistry, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago

Cecil replies:

Could be, but the numbers on many old clocks appear to have been cast in one piece, as opposed to being assembled out of individual characters, as your theory would require. But you — or at least your clockmaker friend–get points for ingenuity.

A site for four I’s, Part Two

Dear Cecil:

I was surprised by your wishy-washy answer regarding the rationale for using the Roman numerals “IIII” on clocks instead of “IV.” Long ago I read somewhere (L. M. Boyd?) that, not having a taste for hurled lightning bolts, the Romans were loath to offend the gods’ head honcho by daring to place the first two letters of his name (IVPITER in their primitive, pre-U, pre-J script) on a clock face. Accordingly they plumped for the four-eyes.  Why the letters would be so offensive I do not recall, but knowing how touchy the gods were, I suppose the clockmakers just figured there was no point taking chances.

— E.L.F., San Antonio, Texas

Cecil replies:

Fine. Just one problem. The Romans didn’t have clocks. They did have sundials, and I suppose — although unfortunately Little Ed prematurely cleaned out the “Timekeeping devices, ancient” GIF file — that they may have used IIII instead of IV to identify the fourth hour. But European clockmakers a thousand years later were under no obligation to do the same, belief in IVPITER having largely evaporated by that time. Maybe they did anyhow, out of some sense that it wasn’t wise to buck tradition. Maybe they just thought IIII was the proper way to style a Roman “4,” the modern subtractive method (IV) not yet having fully kicked in. Or maybe they just thought IIII made for a more aesthetically pleasing configuration of numbers. The point is we don’t know, and given that clockmakers had better things to do than keep notes on such minutiae, we may never know. You may call the disinclination to give a firm answer in the absence of dispositive evidence “wishy-washy”; I call it learning to deal with ambiguity. It’s like I said. The Straight Dope isn’t just a Q&A column, it’s training for life.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.