Stock Number: 8225


For sale, antique Chinese 19th century "dragon boat alarm", as described in detail by Silvio Bedini. This fierce dragon boat would hold a long straight stick of incense. It served as a clock by noting the remaining unburned length.


34 inches (86 centimeters) long


c, 19th century

Country of manufacture


Category: Timekeeping


DRAGON BOAT TIMEKEEPER, Chinese, c. 19th century, made of finely carved wood, 34″ (86 cm) long. The well-carved dragon has dramatic head and tail, and floral decoration throughout, and is clutching balls (pearls?) in mouth and feet. It is finished in contrasting gold and black lacquer, showing traces of red pigment underneath. Condition is good, noting several losses to the wood, including one foot. In the hollow center is a decorated wood support with two short horizontal metal rods — from this would presumably have hung a wire basket, or perhaps a pewter pan, to support a straight stick of incense. Overall this dragon boat presents extremely well and dramatically.

This is a good example of the “dragon boat alarm” described in great detail by Bedini in his book The Trail of Time — Time measurement with incense in East Asia (1994). Various forms are known, some serving as simple “clocks” by noting the burnt length of incense, some used with thin threads laid cross-wise over the incense, the threads supporting tiny bells which fell noisily below the vessel as each thread burned through, and some on wheels to cross the dinner table. Bedini finds reference to the dragon boat alarm as early as 1100 A.D., and into much more recent times.

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David and Yola Coffeen both have enjoyed academic careers, as planetary astronomer and as linguist/educator. But since 1982 (yes, 1982!) they have been full-time dealers in early scientific and medical instruments, under the name Tesseract. Selling primarily by catalogue (over 100 issued so far) they also have a web presence at www.etesseract.com, and can be contacted at [email protected].

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