Kaira was studying Roman numerals yesterday, and I noticed her gazing at the clock on our mantle perplexed. “Mommy, the clock’s numerals are WRONG!” I went over to look, and she pointed at where the 4 would be–or the Roman numeral IV. Sure enough, Instead of IV our clock has IIII.
Later in the evening Ken reflected that as a boy he’d wondered the same thing, and even asked his fourth grade teacher at school why his clock at home had IIII instead of IV. She’d replied that it was common for clocks, but didn’t know why.
Well, unlike the public schools, we have more freedom to research our little ponderings, so I’ve been doing some searches, reading horology websites and newsgroups and such. Although Wikipedia articles should always be taken with a grain of salt (or the full shaker), the theories in this article match up well with the others I came across. (In short, most of the more likely explanations pertain to aesthetics; Depicting 4 as IIII instead of IV adds radial symmetry to the clock-face.)
I also learned that the Romans themselves weren’t as consistent as I’d always assumed. Supposedly the tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinius shows him as the standard bearer for the 9th (written as VIIII, not IX) legion, and as being 28 (inscribed on the stone as XXIIX, instead of XXVIII) years old. (I cannot personally verify as I’ve not traveled to York, England where the stone is found.)
My daughter and husband are both more observant than I am. Ken noticed the clock discrepancy in 4th grade, my daughter at age 7. I might have lived my entire life without noticing.
Isn’t it amazing: the things we look at every day, yet never truly see.