Dear Matthew Alice:
Have you ever noticed the Roman numeral four on watches and clocks? It's WRONG! Instead of the usual IV, like we all learned in grade school, it says IIII! What's the story? Is there a story?
Ellen, La Mesa
Of course there's a story. There's always a story.
You can stroll around any city and look at public clocks (the nonelectronic ones, at any rate), check out watches on practically any wrist, and leaf through any book on the history of clocks, and you'll see exactly the same Roman numeral for the hour of four o'clock: IIII, not IV, It's been that way for as long as people have been numbering dials, including sundials. And I'm afraid to say, pan of the explanation is just that — it's tradition — it's the way we've always done it.
In following tradition, clock and watch makers are copying a very old form of the Roman system of numerals. At one time, 1/11 was the only way of writing four in that system. This numbering method was picked up from sundials when mechanical clocks were invented in the Middle Ages, and it's continued on like that to the present day on virtually all timepieces that use Roman instead of Arabic numerals.
A bigger mystery is why clock makers substituted IX for the earlier VIIII for the number nine. There appears to be no easy explanation for this, unless, perhaps, as clocks became smaller and more portable, the shorter IX was substituted to save space on the dial.