Why Do Clocks and Watches Use the Roman Numeral IIII Instead of IV?

Have you ever noticed that in almost all clocks and watches with Roman numerals on the dial, the number IV, which is the most acceptable form for 4 o’clock, isn’t referred to that way? Here’s why.

Why Do Clocks and Watches Use the Roman Numeral IIII Instead of IV?

Okay, okay. Let’s start this article with the admission that most Americans are not 100 percent familiar with Roman numerals. We use Arabic numerals and are sometimes confused by all the letters: I, V, X, M, etc. However, almost all of us know that when the Roman numerals refer to the Arabic numeral 4, the most acceptable way to write this is the short form: IV. Not so when it comes to watches and clocks. 

Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur Blue Enamel - using the IIII instead of IV
Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur Blue Enamel – using the IIII instead of IV

Clocks date back centuries and are one of the oldest forms of communicating time beyond relying on the phases of the moon or the sun in certain positions in the sky. As such, these classical timekeepers usually used the most accepted form of numerals — Roman — on their dials. This is because Roman numerals originated around 1000 BC and continued to be used long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Arabic numerals didn’t really come into play until the mid-1400s. So, it made sense to use the traditional form, except for that darn four. 

While some of the most famous clocks in the world, including Big Ben, use the proper form of four, IV, on their dials, most clocks and watches use the less desirable form of IIII. There are many theories about why the four individual I’s are used instead of the IV, but it seems that no one today really knows the true answer.

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Big Ben, London UK IV instead of IIII
Big Ben, London, UK uses the proper form of four – IV

Here are three potentially plausible theories for the use of IIII instead of IV, along with a few myths that just seem too far-fetched. 

IIII Looks Better Than IV on the Dial

I personally believe the reason for the four I’s was aesthetic. After all, clocks and watches were considered not just a necessity but also a luxury – something only the wealthy could afford. So when you look at a dial, the four single strokes on the bottom right half of the face are a beautiful balance across from the VIII that stands for the eight on the bottom left half. This makes for a harmonious dial design – something everyone wants in a luxury timepiece.

Diety Reverence – Roman God Jupiter

Remembering how far back clocks date, and the fact that everyone from the Romans to the Greeks and other civilizations had their own forms of clocks, the reason for the IIII instead of the IV could have something to do with mythology. For instance, the Roman god Jupiter, the god of the sky and thunder, held the Latin name IVPPITER. Using IV on the dial of a clock or sundial may have been seen as an insult to the gods.

While this theory fits for sundials thanks to the timing, there is no reason why – when clocks appeared – the IIII wasn’t switched to IV. Unless subsequent generations still wished to honor the myths. While this might have been the earliest raison d’être, it doesn’t seem reason enough to continue it once the Swiss watchmaking industry came to power.

IIII Was the Easiest Way to Read 4 for the Non-Educated

Once again, dating sundials and first tower clocks back to the middle ages, it is possible that the IIII instead of the IV was done purely out of respect for the masses. Education was not a requirement back then, and many people couldn’t read or write. So it is possible that they could understand the literal number four because of the four lines rather than the IV. The decision to use the individual marks may have been out of deference to the non-educated farmer and worker population. 

Royalty and Technology

Some groups of watch lovers have other theories, but these just don’t seem to hold up to better scrutiny. For example, there is a story that Louis XIV saw a watch designed for him using the IV and insisted it be changed to IIII. While that could be true in a singular instance, it is certainly not the case for the overall genre of IIII over IV concepts. The timing is just centuries too late. The IIII had already been used for hundreds of years. 

The alternate royalty story might be more plausible if one thought royalty was to blame (or credit). For example, in the late 14th century Charles V, King of France, told a watchmaker to use the IIII because he thought taking the IV form was bad luck, indicating that his title (or generational nomenclature) might be compromised. Given that most clocks of that century used the IIII, it almost seems possible, but even clocks in England and other countries used the IIII. 

Other Theories

Others theorize that it has to do with the casting of the metal materials to make the individual IIII versus the IV numerals, saying there would be more wasted material for the IV than the four IIII. Maybe in ancient times, it was harder to create a V than three more I’s, but that would have been the first thing to change when cutting techniques improved. 

Another concept projected is that technology factored in. Primitive technology, of course. Some say that the striking clocks of yesteryear would have had to strike a soft tone for the I, followed by a hard tone for the V if the clock read IV. That is absurd since early chiming clocks couldn’t recognize and repeat the way the typography of the numerals looked on the clock. Instead, they would have struck one chime at 1:00, two at 2:00, three at 3:00, four at 4:00, and so on around the dial regardless of the look of the numerals.  

With so many theories and ideas about the IIII versus the IV, it leaves true watch pundits wondering. However, in today’s day and age, there should be no discussion when you see stunning watch dials using the IIII in all its glory as a design element juxtaposed to the VIII.