Why Do Some Clocks Use Roman Numeral IIII?

iStock
iStock

Why do some analog clocks with Roman numerals have '4' as 'IV,' while others have 'IIII'? This is one of those questions where no one seems to have a definitive answer, and probably no one ever will. What we do have is a handful of competing theories, some with plenty of holes and others that might just be true. You'll have to pick the one that sounds best to you and roll with it.

Once upon a time, when Roman numerals were used by the actual Roman Empire, the name of the Romans' supreme deity, Jupiter, was spelled as IVPPITER in Latin. Hesitant to put part of the god's name on a sundial or in accounting books, IIII became the preferred representation of four. Of course, IVPPITER wasn't being worshipped much by the time clocks and watches replaced sundials, but clockmakers may have stuck with IIII just for the sake of tradition.

In another blow to the Jupiter theory, subtractive notation—where IV, instead of IIII, represents four—didn't become the standard until well after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (and the numerals we use now are an even more modern set). It's likely, then, that IIII was used on sundials (and everywhere else) simply because that was the proper numeral to use at the time, and not for fear of divine retribution.

Once subtractive notation came onto the scene and a choice was available, to V or not to V became a question every clockmaker had to answer for themselves. Some adopted the newfangled IV because it was the new standard, but others hung on to the traditional IIII.

IIII might have stuck around because it's easily recognizable as four. IV involves a little math. Yes, it's just one simple subtraction operation, but keep in mind that when subtractive notation really caught on in the Middle Ages, the majority of people weren't literate or numerate. Subtraction was a lot to wrap the head around. On top of that, IV and VI might have been easily confused by the uneducated (likewise with IX and XI, which is why nine was sometimes represented by VIIII).

Using IIII may have also made work a little easier for certain clock makers. If you're making a clock where the numerals are cut from metal and affixed to the face, using IIII means you'll need twenty I's, four V's, and four X's. That's one mold with a V, five I's, and an X cast four times. With an IV, you'd need seventeen I's, five V's, and four X's, requiring several molds in different configurations.

King Louis XIV of France supposedly preferred IIII over IV, perhaps for the same vain reasons Jupiter wouldn't want two letters from his name on a sundial, and so ordered his clockmakers to use the former. Some later clockmakers followed the tradition, and others didn't. The problems here are that this story is told in connection with many other monarchs, and IIII was used also in areas where there was no king with an IV in his title to object to the subtractive notation.

One more reason to use IIII is that it creates more visual symmetry with the VIII opposite it on the clock face than IV does. Using IIII also means that only I is seen the first four hour markings on the, V is only seen in the next four markings, and X is seen only in the last four markings, creating radial symmetry. As we learned last year when pondering why display clocks are often set to 10:10, symmetry goes a long way in the clock world.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

How Keanu Reeves Was Tricked Into Making The Watcher

Keanu Reeves in 2008.
Keanu Reeves in 2008.
Mike Flokis, Getty Images

Thanks to the success of The Matrix in 1999, which proved his continued box office bankability, Keanu Reeves had his choice of projects when the 2000s came along. It was therefore puzzling to see Reeves in 2000’s The Watcher, a generic crime thriller with Reeves playing a serial killer caught up in a psychological game with an FBI agent played by James Spader. The film was poorly reviewed, made just $29 million, and didn’t seem in sync with Reeves's career. So why did he accept the role?

According to Reeves, it was because he was tricked.

The actor originally agreed to a small role in the film as a favor to friend Joe Charbanic, who played recreational hockey with Reeves and also shot footage of Reeves’s band, Dogstar. He also happened to be The Watcher's director. With Reeves in the cast, it would be easier for producers to obtain financing. Instead, Reeves found himself being prominently featured, with his character, David Allen Griffin, taking up a considerable amount of screen time. (Spader, who played Joel Campbell, received top billing.)

That wasn’t the only issue. In an interview with The Calgary Sun conducted a year after the film’s release, Reeves explained that “a friend” forged his signature on a contract. While that might be cause for legal action, Reeves didn’t see it that way.

“I never found the script interesting, but a friend of mine forged my signature on the agreement,” Reeves said. “I couldn’t prove he did and I didn’t want to get sued, so I had no other choice but to do the film.”

An irritated Reeves refused to do any press promoting the movie, which Universal—the studio that produced the film—allowed if Reeves agreed not to speak openly about his grievances for one year.

Reeves went on to film both Matrix sequels, which were released in 2003. After a string of misses, he scored a hit with 2015’s John Wick. A fourth film in that series is planned.