The Mystery of the Gift that Keeps on Giving


By Guest Contributor Guy G. Gelbron
Clock Face with Roman Numerals. All Things - no necessarily Gold Beach Oregon.

I’ll be damned.” That’s one of the frequently-quoted script lines from the movie “Tootsie”, in which Dustin Hoffman disguises himself as a woman to play the part of female hospital administrator Dorothy Michaels in a soap opera. The utterance is expressed by the soap’s director as Dorothy unexpectedly reveals on a live-transmitted TV episode of the show that “she” is really a “he”.

Well, I guarantee you that the factual revelation disclosed in this article will similarly elicit from you the same “I’ll be damned” expression. Let me go even a step further – the odds are almost 100% that, after reading this article, not only will you immediately share its contents with any acquaintance that happens to be in your physical proximity, but for the rest of your life you’ll frequently repeat this story whenever the relevant subject matter arises. One word of advice – when you relate the yarn, do it in the same manner that it was related to me and which I disclose in this article. It makes for a little lighter and funnier anecdote than the plain “did you know that…?”

And now, with these preliminaries out of the way, our story begins in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

My wife and I stood awestruck inside the underground bowels of the Argentinean National Congress, our eyes feasting on a cornucopia of gold and silver ornaments, statues, furniture, and the like, many adorned with a variety of precious and semi-precious gemstones. We had just entered a large room which, we were informed, was colloquially referred to by the elected Argentinean congressional representatives as the “gift room”. It housed all the official state gifts which were bequeathed to Argentina and which were not then on display in any of the numerous governmental buildings situated across the country.

We were all alone, save the administrative liaison for the President of the Chamber of Deputies who was escorting us on a private tour of the Argentinean legislative facility. Parenthetically, the circumstances surrounding our exclusive excursion are totally irrelevant to this column’s cryptic title, but they do constitute an unusual whole other story which may even be revealed in a future column.

So here we were, standing in front of a beautiful dark mahogany cabinet, on top of which rested one of the most beautiful gold-encrusted, gemstones-inlaid tabletop clock, its dial face just about at our eye-level. The time was 10:10 AM, so the hour hand was on the numeral X and the minute hand was precisely and symmetrically on the opposite side of the clock’s face on the numeral II – the clock was smiling at us, its hour and minute hands combined to form the broadest smile and friendliest greeting, as if to say “welcome to my house.”

Our guide explained to us that the ornate, large timepiece was a gift to Argentina from the nation of France in 1830, when France finally recognized Argentina’s 1816 declaration of independence from its colonial occupier Spain and assured its freedom with a resounding military victory over the occupying Spanish army in 1824. She explained that the postponement of France’s diplomatic recognition, and hence the delay in the gifting of the clock until 1830, was caused by the lingering adversarial relationship which existed between France and Spain in the early 19th Century, prior to Argentina’s attainment of its national sovereignty. In 1808, France’s Napoleon Bonaparte defeated and occupied Spain during the Peninsular War (only to be defeated in 1814 in a prelude to his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815), installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte to the Spanish royal throne after forcing the abdication of Spain’s King Ferdinand VII and his father, Charles IV.

“This clock was the winner of King Louis XIV’s clock competition held in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles,” said our Argentinean guide, struggling with her heavy Spanish accent. “He was known as the Sun King and his 72-year reign, from 1638 to 1715, was the longest of any other European sovereign. Clock makers from all over Europe were invited to send clocks to the Versailles competition, and this one was picked by King Louis as the winner.”

“Do you see anything unusual, anything wrong with the clock?” she inquired. We gave the clock the once-over, checking its case from both sides and from the top, scanning the crystal glass which was protecting the clock’s face, but we were stumped. There did not seem to be anything wrong with the smiling masterpiece mounted before us. “Look at the 4 o’clock designation on the clock’s face” she urged us. “Does it look OK to you?”

And it was then that we realized that 4 o’clock on the clock was portrayed by an incorrect Roman numeral symbol “IIII” instead of the correct Roman numeral “IV”. Both of us reflexively glanced at the left half of the clock face to confirm that similar mistakes were not made with respect to any other hourly designations (e.g., “IIIIII” instead of “VI”) and, of course, none existed.

“What actually happened,” our guide continued, “was that King Louis picked this clock as the winner, proclaimed its maker victorious, awarded him the 1st place prize and instructed his palace staff to move the clock into the King’s State Apartments. Days later the mistake was noticed by one of the king’s advisors, who informed King Louis of the error. Not wanting to admit to his faux pas (how do you like that turn of phrase? This French stuff is beginning to take its toll), and instead of returning the clock to its maker for the purpose of correcting the erroneous numeral designation, King Louis XIV proclaimed through a royal edict that, henceforth, all clocks made in his kingdom would follow suit and depict 4 o’clock with a ‘IIII’ symbol. French global influence at the time being as weighty as it was, most clockmakers in Europe followed suit and the then-new trend continued ever since, until today.”

We were flabbergasted. Between us, my wife and I had almost 100 years of living and neither one of us ever noticed the anomaly of which we had just been made aware. Both of us were wearing watches since our visit occurred in 10 BC (i.e., 10 years Before Cell phones). We examined our watches’ hour designations, definitely more intently than ever before. My watch’s Arabic numerals obviously proved unhelpful. But my wife’s wristwatch, with its Roman numerals, and which she had been wearing for over a decade, similarly designated 4 o’clock with the symbol “IIII”.

Ever since that day in the “gift room”, whenever I engage in a conversation the content of which prompts me to recall that day in Buenos Aires, I generally repeat the Louis XIV clock story. Almost to a person, everyone who hears the account is bewildered by their life-long unawareness of such an incongruity with respect to such a common everyday activity (often many times during the day) as looking at a watch or a clock to check the time. Occasionally, particularly if I’m in the company of some bothersome showoff trying to impress others with a Rolex or some fancy, ornate wall clock (and after inconspicuously verifying – “oh, wow, that’s beautiful, can I look at it closer” – the presence of (i) Roman numerals, instead of Arabic numbers, on the timepiece’s face, and (ii) that its “4 o’clock” is designated as “IIII”), I calmly announce that the timepiece is obviously a counterfeit since a product mistake of such nature wouldn’t be made by its legitimate manufacturer. And then I get ready to perform CPR on the bragger.

For years now, every time I notice the dial face of a watch or clock, I look to see if 4 o’clock is inscribed in the traditional “IIII” manner. Almost always it is. On the other hand, when I notice an occasional “IV” designation to the “four o’clock” hour, I attribute the divergence from the customary inscription to two categories of clockmakers.

Some just do not know any better, even though they should, since the deviation from the norm relates to and is inherent in the narrative of their profession. They lack the prerequisite historical knowledge and perspective and have no clue that they are bucking tradition – hell, they are probably not even aware that a tradition exists. Someone should tell Topol’s Tevye to add an additional verse to his “Tradition” opening number in Fiddler on the Roof.

Then there are the timepiece designers who intentionally reject the path dictated by King Louis’ “IIII” edict. These clockmakers emulate their previous artisan predecessors who were contaminated with the lasting anti-French nationalistic bias which had its roots in the conscious perpetuation of the Napoleon-initiated historical antagonism between France and England (and, to a lesser extent, other European countries). For example, England’s Big Ben, the London landmark built in honor of Queen Victoria in the mid-19th Century (i.e., approximately 200 years after King Louis’s edict) and probably the most famous of all clocks, intentionally depicts four o’clock with the Roman numeral “IV”, not “IIII”. C’est la guerre (uh-oh, more of King Louis’ French).

Infrequently I hear some explanations for the “IIII” mistake which are contradictory to the one offered by our Argentinean guide and which I have recounted in this column. One such illumination, while still incorporating King Louis into the rationalization, does not include any reference to the clock competition and blames the mistake squarely on poor Louis’ shoulders. According to this account, there was only one clockmaker, a famous French artisan, who was building the clock for Louis’ Palace of Versailles. The clock he presented designated the correct Roman numeral for 4 o’clock, i.e., “IV”. King Louis looked at the face of the clock and pointed out to the clockmaker that he mistakenly labeled the 4 o’clock hour with the “IV” when, according to Louis in this narrative, the Roman numeral for 4 was IIII and hence the 4 in “four o’clock” also should be “IIII”. Over the protestation of the audience present at the clock’s unveiling, Louis insisted that he was right and, since Google was unavailable at the time, Louis and his “correction” persevered. It’s nice to be king!

In my opinion, that story doesn’t fly. I can elucidate my opposing argument in depth to anyone who contacts this website, buttresses support for this contradictory account with cogent facts, and requests my counter argument response. In the meantime, suffice it to say that Louis’ full name was “The Sun King, Louis the XIV” and, since Louis didn’t go around spelling his name “Louis the XIIII”, we know he knew how to designate the Roman numeral IV.

Another theory for the “IIII” usage explains that the serfs running around the French countryside were too dumb to comprehend that the Latin numeral “IV” meant four o’clock. That explanation provides that these French peasants needed 4 vertical lines on the clock face for the purpose of equating such verticals to four of their straight hand fingers, counting such fingers, and thus understanding that ‘IIII” meant four o’clock.

Again, in my opinion that dog also won’t hunt. As I said before, if you want me to expound in detail my rejection of this account, send a request to the website and I will respond. In the meantime, just remember, if the serfs couldn’t figure out that “IV” was “4”, how could they understand that “VI” was “6” or “IX” was “9”? Why wasn’t “6 o’clock” or “9 o’clock” designated on the clock face as “IIIIII” or “IIIIIIIII”, respectively? After all, almost all serfs had 10 fingers!

Two other scantly-advocated explanations have been put forward to explain the “IIII” phenomena, or should I say the “IV” phenomena. One relies on clock face design and the other on clock manufacturing techniques.

The “design” rationalization promotes the theory that the “IIII” error was not a gaffe, but instead purposefully instituted to retain the optical symmetry of the right and left halves of the clock face by providing each side with a four-character hourly designation symbol (i.e.,”IIII” and “VIII”). Proponents of this position argue that utilization of the correct Roman numeral for the “4 o’clock” hourly designation (i.e., “IV”) on the right side of the clock face results in a two-character variation with its “8 o’clock” mirror image (“VIII”) on the left side of the clock face, thus making the clock’s left side “heavy” by two characters.

The “manufacturing” rationalization promotes the theory that the methodology employed back in Louis XIV’s time to produce the metallic numerals affixed to the clock face justified the incorporation of the numerical error (i.e., “IIII”) into the clock-making process. This explanation is based on another symmetry argument, this one relating to the manufacturing requirement that the right and left sides of the round casting enclosure contain an equal number of forms holding the molten iron.

You see, designating the “four o’clock” position with the correct numeral “IV” would result in two numerals (the “I” and “V”) having an uneven number of pieces, making it impossible to put an even number of pieces of such numerals on both halves of the casting pen and thus rendering its circular form out of sync. The discrepancy is caused by the requirement that an uneven 17 “I” pieces be cast for the numerals “1” (“I”) (1 piece), “2” (“II”) (2 pieces), “3” (“III”) (3 pieces), “4” (“IV”) (1 piece), “6” (“VI”) (1 piece), “7” (“VII”) (2 pieces), “8” (“III”) (3 pieces), “9” (“IX”) (1 piece), “11” (“XI”) (1 piece), and “12” (“XII”) (2 pieces) and an uneven 5 “V” pieces be cast for the “IV”, “V”, “VI”, “VII” and “VIII” hourly designations of “4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 o’clock”. The “X” piece presents no problem because an even number of 4 members is necessary for the formation of the hourly designations of “IX”, “X”, “XI” and “XII”.

Replacing the “IV” with the incorrect “IIII” symbol, however, fixes the problem and restores the equilibrium within the enclosure. The “X” forms remain undisturbed by the change, 2 on each half of the circular enclosure. The “I” forms split evenly at 10 on each side (since the replacement of “IIII” for “IV” adds a net of 3 more “I” members to the mix, resulting in a total of 20), and the replacement of “IIII” for “IV” results in the subtraction of the fifth “V”, restoring evenness to the production of the necessary 4 “V” members, 2 on the left and 2 on the right of the round casting enclosure.

Both of these alternative hypotheses are pretty thin when exposed to logic and investigation. The “design” purist approach to clock face equilibrium is flawed when scrutinized against all the other mirror-image sets of the clock’s hourly designations. As I have indicated before, if you would like a detailed defense for my conclusion, write to the website and let me know. But please note that, if you train your eyes on the “5 o’clock” and “7 o’clock” pairing – “V vs. VII” – it sports a 2 – character variation as well, just as the pairing of “IV vs. VIII” would have created. The optical “heaviness” eliminated on the left side of the clock face by making “4 o’clock” a four-figure designation (i.e., “IIII”) on the right side merely shifted the so-called “heaviness” disfiguration of the clock face to the pairing immediately below the “4 and 8 o’clock” match up, i.e., to the “5 and 7” combination.

The “manufacturing” explanation is also unconvincing and appears to be contrived. I always seem to conjure some comparable situation relating to the production of modern-day goods. For example, can you imagine the public’s reaction to a car company which decides not to include a spare tire with their new models because it would necessitate the production of five tires per each vehicle?

Anyway, if you support the “manufacturing” explanation, contact the website and demand a more comprehensive response. In the meantime, however, how about telephoning Louis’ iron worker and telling him to solve the problem of the 2 odd pieces by putting one on the left half of the casting pen and the second on the right half, thus creating the sought-after equilibrium, admittedly with two different numerals. Or how about adding an extra “I” and an extra “V” to the first casting run, thereby attaining an equilibrium with two extra numeral casting forms, and thereafter creating an equilibrium in the second run by eliminating the odd-numbered “I” and “V” and using the extras manufactured in the first casting run to supplement the shortfall.

And now to the last explanation for substituting “IIII” for “IV”. This one is “out of left field”, providing that, in Latin, the Roman god Jupiter’s name abbreviation is “IV” and hence it would have been disrespectful for King Louis to accept a clock which was inscribed with “IV” on its face. I’m on the record here that this tale is “fake news.” By now you are also familiar with the drill – if you desire more, ask the website for more and you will get more. Or as William Hickey kept telling Billy Crystal in “Forget Paris” – “You asked for it, you got it – Toooyoootttaaa!”

In the meantime, however, ask yourself why would a French king, a devout Christian espousing the monotheistic characteristic of Christianity, give so much credence to one of many Roman gods who were entrenched within the polytheism which characterized the Roman religion? Parenthetically, for those of you who are wondering how the letters “IV” can serve as an abbreviation for JUPITER, I’m in the process of writing another column for the website for the purpose of answering that inquiry.

In conclusion, I respectfully submit to you that my episodic explanation is the authentic reason behind the corruption of the “4 o’clock” designation from “IV” to “IIII”. Not only is my story logically intact and not susceptible to negative attacks (if you disagree, you know what to do), it is also blessed by one more raison d’être (and what do you say to this parlez-vous tidbit, an incorporation of another expression generated by the French argot, to be specific by the Gallic patois? Ooh – a double, triple and quadruple whammy! As Billy Idol says – It’s hot in the city tonight). And that is that I heard it through the grapevine, from the horse’s mouth (actually she was pretty good looking), the Argentinean guardian of the very clock which started the whole brouhaha. Trust me!

So now you know the story behind all those defective clocks and watches which are floating around. Go to sleep and set your alarm for IIII o’clock so you can awake and finish perusing the rest of this website. Sweet Dreams, Good Night, and Good Luck (that’s a movie riddle as well). GGG.