Rummaging around at the back of a kitchen drawer last week, I was puzzled to find my fingers covered in sand! On closer inspection, I found that an old egg timer had given up the ghost and leaked its contents everywhere. This caused an instant attack of nostalgia and set me thinking about old-fashioned gadgets, as opposed to the new ones, like spiralizers and omelette makers, that I have been writing about lately.
I think it’s fair to say you would find an hourglass egg timer in most people’s kitchens until a few years ago. Boiled eggs were a staple for breakfast and hard-boiled eggs regularly appeared in packed lunches and afternoon tea and party sandwiches. Whether you like your boiled egg runny, soft or like a bullet is a very personal thing and using a three-minute egg timer produced a slightly runny egg. Egg timers, or hourglasses as I should really call them, came from a much slower era. You had to pause and keep your eye on the sand as it trickled gently down – none of this multi-tasking, rushing around and waiting for an ear-shattering bleeping to tell you your egg is cooked.
As a child, I found the hourglass my Mother had quite fascinating. I loved the shape and can remember watching it intently, convinced it would stop flowing if I took my eyes off it! The design is simple – two glass bulbs connected vertically by a narrow neck that allows a regulated trickle of material (often sand) from the upper bulb to the lower one. What period of time the glass measures is defined by sand quantity, sand coarseness, bulb size, and neck width. So you can buy three-minute, or four-minute and so on, egg-timers to suit your tastes.
The origin of the hourglass is unclear, but the use of the marine sandglass has been recorded since the 14th century. Marine sandglasses were very popular on board ships, as they were the most dependable measurement of time while at sea as the motion of the ship while sailing did not affect the hourglass. Sailors used the hourglass to help them determine longitude, distance east or west from a certain point, with reasonable accuracy which was of vital importance when you are trying to sail around the world or make accurate maps!
The hourglass also found popularity on land as it was relatively inexpensive, as they required no rare technology to make and their contents were not hard to come by, and their uses became more practical. Hourglasses were commonly seen in use in churches, homes, and work places to measure sermons, cooking time, and time spent on breaks from work.
The sandglass is still widely used as the kitchen egg timer – for cooking eggs, a three-minute timer is typical, hence the name ‘egg timer’ for three-minute hourglasses. We still often use sand timers when we play games such as Pictionary and Boggle.
Rather wonderfully… unlike most other methods of measuring time, the hourglass represents the ‘present’ as being between the past and the future, and this has made it an enduring symbol of time itself. The hourglass, sometimes with the addition of little wings, is often depicted as a symbol that human existence is fleeting and that the ‘sands of time’ will run out for every human life. And that’s a fact that none of us can dispute.