Incense by JanneM on Flickr

Incense by KanneM on Flickr

You’ve looked at a clock, you’ve listened to the Church bells (or the incessant bleeping of your alarm) but have you ever smelled the time?  The Chinese apparently used incense to measure time before the common use of clocks or other timepieces, and there were several methods.

Some featured a metal tray where the incense stick would be lain and as the stick burned over time it would burn through threads holding little metal weights.  When the thread burned through, the weight would fall onto a gong beneath.

Another method involved creating a bed of damp ash (to protect against rogue fires) and using a stencil over it to guide the sprinkling of powdered incense across the top.  Tamped down, the single-line maze arrangement of incense would then be burned, and the progress indicating the amount of time that had passed.  Incredibly ornate (and usually square) patterns were used, looking like a cross between a QR code and Celtic knot-work.  These could burn for up to a month!  But my favorite by far…

…Were incense sticks divided into segments, and made from a different incense for each portion – thus the first portion of time might smell of sandalwood, and the next might have the aroma of roses.  Instead of looking, or even listening for the time, you’d take a sniff and be able to recognize when it was from the scent in the room.   This style particularly interests me.  With the sense of smell having a very strong link to memory, I imagine a scented clock could provide a very strong association in your mind for certain schedules or habits that you performed every time the incense burned.

I still like the idea of the ornately stenciled incense – I think that our knowledge of fractals mean that given an understanding of how long the incense takes to burn, almost any length of time (i.e. length of path) could be calculated and then laser cut into a stencil.  You could have a whole stack of timed stencils, some for a mere 5 minutes, others that have notch marks every 20 minutes in a total of a 2hr winding path.

Lastly, imagine that you bought a brand new DVD, and with it, you received a finely tuned incense stick – lit the same time you started the movie, it accompanies the film with different scents – the spent gunpowder scent of the moon, the cloying confusing perfume of the lush alien forests, or the somber holy aroma of a cathedral.

Photograph by JanneM on Flickr.
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