Why is the number 4 wrong on many clocks and watches?

Summary: Which one is wrong? Clocks and watches seem including “IIII” or “IV”.When I was in high school I remember how whenever my friends and I went to the movies we always tried to decode the Roman numerals that comprised the copyright date before they disappeared from the screen. I’ve got to say, I haven’t given Roman numerals a whole lot of thought lately as I’m older now and live in a bigger town, but it’s funny how things come back.

I was sitting in my doctor’s office and I’d systematically worked my way through all of the pamphlets on all of the various medical “conditions” I hoped to escape. I’d probably looked at the clock on the wall a half-dozen times or so when it suddenly occurred to me: the Roman numeral for the number “4” isn’t “IIII,” is it? Isn’t it “IV?” Would my doctor, the single human being I trust most with my health have the Roman numerals on his clock be wrong?

I have to say, this didn’t bother me too much, but when I got home I did a little research and found some things about Roman numerals I had forgotten and a lot that I had no idea about.

We all know Roman numerals as the Roman numeric system in which letters have been applied numerical values:

I (i) for one (1)
V (v) for five (5)
X (x) for ten (10)
L (l) for fifty (50)
C (c) for one hundred (100)
D (d) for five hundred (500)
M (m) for one thousand (1,000)

From these seven letters, all other numbers are written using either an additive method or a subtractive, depending on the number represented. The number “seven” is written by adding together “two” and “five.” Thus, it is written as “VII,.” “Nine,” written as “IX,” however, is subtractive.

So any number can be written in Roman numerals, right? Well, yes, however there’s the question of style – or lack thereof. The big one is that there is not now, nor has there ever been, any universally accepted method of styling Roman numerals. For instance, say you’re a bored kid in a small town spending a Friday night at the movies. The year is 1990. How is 1990 written? It could be “MXM” or “MCMXC.” It could even be written as “MDCCCCLXXXX.” They’re all correct (although the last one’s kind of cumbersome), but there’s no authority or governing body make the call. And as for the Romans, well I’m pretty sure they’re not telling

As for the riddle of the stylization of the number “4?” Roman numeral for the digit “4” is “IV,” there are dozens of stories as to why even some very expensive clocks write “4” as “IIII (and if you don’t think that this isn’t a hotbed of debate among horologists, you’re missing out).” In one, Louis XIV of France commissioned a clock and when the famous clockmaker presented it with “IV,” the ignorant king had it sent back to be “corrected,” and influenced millions thereafter. In another, the quest for optical balance is responsible, countering “VIII” on one side of the dial with the incorrect “IIII.” Yet another claims to be out of respect for their god, Jupiter, “IV” being the first letters of the god’s name in the Roman alphabet. And the list goes on.

My solution to the problem? Digital.


One Reply to “Why is the number 4 wrong on many clocks and watches?”

  1. To read Roman numerals one reads from left to right. When a numeral is followed by a numeral greater than itself the preceeding is subtracted from the greater. However when a numeral is followed by a numeral smaller than itself the following numeral is added to the greater. One moves through the numerals appling logic to the combinations in order (MCM for example, MC M would be 1100 1000 which is not logical whereas M CM would be 1900 and is logical). Therefore, MDCCCLXXXX would be literally translated as 1500 450 40 not 1990.

    Similarly you would account for each multiple unit seperately such as ‘ones’ ‘tens’ ‘hundreds’ ‘thousands’ and would not cross over. So “MXM” (M is the ‘thousands’ XM is the ‘tens’) and would mean the ‘hundreds’ was missed out the sequence and would not be done.

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