Feeling like time is slipping away? Explore the fascinating and endless history of timekeeping, from ancient sundials to modern atomic clocks.
Ancient Timekeeping Devices: Tracing the History of Measuring Time
Have you ever wondered why there are 60 seconds in a minute? Both the Ancient Sumerians and the Babylonians laid the foundation for our modern understanding of time, employing a sexagesimal system with 60 as its basis. But why 60? Without advanced mathematics, the Sumerians looked to the human hand as the primary tool for counting and visualizing quantities. They realized that the human hand could be divided into three distinct sections: the thumb, the palm and the fingers. By dividing the fingers into three sections, they effectively created a counting system that could represent numbers up to 12. Combining the notion of a dozen (12) with the five fingers on the other hand, they arrived at 60 as the total countable units.
Ancient Babylonian numerical sexagesimal system. 2011. Source.
The genius of the Sumerians' choice is reflected in the versatility of the number 60. It possesses the remarkable property of being divisible by numerous integers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30. This divisibility made calculations and conversions between different units of time significantly easier. Even today, 60 is the base unit for most aeronautical calculations.
From Sundials to Water Clocks: Ancient Timekeeping Devices
Sundials: Measuring Time from Dusk to Dawn
Ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, relied on sundials as their primary timekeeping devices. These ingenious instruments divided the day into twelve sections, providing a reasonably accurate time as long as the sun was shining. Sundials, with their characteristic obelisk design, also played a crucial role during the summer and winter solstices, allowing for precise observations and calendar calculations for the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans.
Sundial Walking Stick. 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Candles and Incense Sticks: Illuminating the Passage of Time
In Asia, an alternative method of timekeeping emerged around 520 CE—the burning of candles and incense sticks. Both the candle and incense clock persisted for centuries, even into the 1920s. By carefully measuring the length of time it took for a candle or incense stick to burn, individuals could estimate the passing hours, thus gaining a semblance of temporal awareness.
A Candle Clock from a copy of al-Jazaris treatise on automata. Early 14th Century. Source.
Water Clocks: Mitigating the Sun's Limitations
To overcome the limitations of sun-dependent timekeeping, ancient civilizations turned to water clocks. Some scholars assert that water clocks existed in China as early as 4000 BCE. These clocks employed a two-pot system, where water dripped from one container into another. However, the accuracy of this system suffered due to the reduced pressure of the outflowing water, resulting in a slower stream and imprecise time measurement. Many Asian cultures, however, adapted by using a constant water source, such as the complex hydromechanical astronomical clock that was constructed by Su Song in the 11th century. This monumental water clock was more than 30 feet (9 meters) in height and featured wheel systems and scoops, and is one of the most highly technical examples of medieval timekeeping.
Vitruvius and Mechanical Alarm Clocks: A Clepsydra Innovation
A water clock (clepsydra). 1753. Source.
The Greek and Roman eras witnessed the invention of mechanical alarm clocks, attributed to the renowned architect Vitruvius. Vitruvius's mechanical alarm clock operated based on the measurement of water collected from a steady stream. This rudimentary clepsydra design was widely used in courts, where specific periods of time were allocated to speakers. Matters of greater importance were granted a larger "water" allotment, allowing ample time for persuasive arguments.
Nautical Innovations: Trade expands
The astrolabe, a revolutionary tool, was widely used during the Islamic Golden Age (8th-13th centuries). It had multiple functions, including accurate time tracking, measuring celestial movements and observing patterns in nature. Its precise calculations had far-reaching impacts. For Muslims, it was crucial for determining the direction of Mecca for prayer. It also aided in tracking lunar cycles and creating tide charts, and was essential for seafaring and navigation.
Modern Persian Astrolabe. 2011. Source.
As a result, Islamic nations became far more advanced sailors than Western countries during the Middle Ages. Before the chronometer, the astrolabe was the most accurate calculator for latitude and longitude, contributing to the development of global trade networks. Today, the astrolabe symbolizes the Arab world's skilled metalworking tradition and stands as one of history's most innovative scientific tools.
The Advent of Mechanical Clocks: Revolutionizing Time Measurement
Three-Train Tower Clock by Seth Thomas. Circa 1930. M.S. Rau.
Since their inception, early Christian monastic traditions utilized a 24-hour day to schedule their chores, prayers and community time. Exhaustingly dependent on water clocks and vigilant bell-ringers, monks were eager to adopt new motion clock innovations as early as the 14th century. Using weight-driven escapements, mechanical clocks revolutionized timekeeping in Europe by introducing the concept of fixed-length hours. Instead of having the length of hours dependent on the summer or winter solstice, a fixed 24-hour day became standard thanks to the mechanical clock.
As European towns expanded in the following centuries, civil governments recognized the importance of regulating town life and sought to establish their own mechanical clock system. Tower clocks were installed in turrets of local churches or purpose-built bell towers. Instead of displaying time with hands on a dial, many of these early clocks utilized a hammer mechanism to strike the bell and announce the hour, providing an audible indication of the time for the townspeople.
Pendulum Clocks: Gravity and Reliability
Later, the concept of the pendulum as a timekeeping mechanism was first realized on December 25, 1656, by the Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens. By building upon Galileo’s work, Huygens' pioneering work provided the foundation for this reliable and precise timekeeping instrument. In its simplest form, a pendulum swings back and forth, with one complete swing representing one second. However, the accuracy of the pendulum clock depends on various factors. Horologists discovered that the effective functioning of gears and the absence of dust played crucial roles in maintaining the clock's precision. Factors such as the ground's level and the swing's girth also influenced the accuracy of the pendulum over time.
Over time, horologists refined the pendulum clock and developed shorter pendulums, which allowed for more rapid swings and increased accuracy. Through meticulous craftsmanship and a deeper understanding of pendulum dynamics, horologists are still remarkable improvements in timekeeping, making these unique clocks increasingly reliable and precise. Many antique clocks have working pendulum movements that are just as accurate today as they were when they were built.
Precision and Portability: The Birth of Pocket Watches
Perpetual Calendar Chronograph Pocket Watch by Redard & Co. 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
Once adopted, the popularity of precise timekeeping became all the more necessary to bourgeoning societies. The 16th century marked a turning point with the introduction of German watchmaker Peter Henlein’s 1510 spring-driven watch. These early watches were cumbersome, resembling heavy drum-shaped brass cylinders. Often worn as pendants or attached to clothing, they were exquisitely engraved and ornamented
In the 17th century, a revolutionary breakthrough came with the invention of the balance spring. This development transformed pocket watches into more compact, accurate timepieces that required less space. Clockmakers seized the opportunity and crafted pocket watches with a protective case and a chain for attachment to clothing. This transformation is often attributed to the year 1675, when Charles II of England introduced waistcoats, giving rise to a new era of accessorizing.
Throughout the 18th century, watchmakers enhanced the precision and dependability of pocket watches with the lever escapement mechanism. Pocket watches became reliable companions, trusted by individuals who valued punctuality and accuracy. Furthermore, pocket watches became a symbol of luxury and status, as their craftsmanship and elegance captured the attention of fashion enthusiasts. By the 19th century, with the efficiency of industry, specifically the railroad system, entirely dependent on accurate timekeeping, it was clear that watches had become indispensable.
Wristwatches: A Fashionable and Convenient Timekeeping Solution
Patek Philippe Diamond Watch. M.S. Rau.
As early as 1810, wristwatches made their debut in the market, primarily marketed as jewelry for women. They were sold as timekeeping accessories worn on bracelets, serving as elegant adornments. It was not until the late 19th century that watches found their way onto the wrists of men. Wristwatches became particularly popular during military engagements, such as the Anglo-Burma War, the Boer War and, most notably, the First World War. Without the ability, or time, to reach into one’s pocket to check the time, watches became vital for soldiers to have quick access to the time.
The Industrial Revolution and Timekeeping: The Rise of Digital Timekeeping
Louis Essen and J. V. L. Parry standing next to the world's first caesium atomic clock, developed at the UK National Physical Laboratory in 1955. Source.
Throughout the 20th century, watches became increasingly accessible as mass production techniques were employed. During the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, Seiko, the renowned Japanese timekeeping company, unveiled a working quartz digital clock. By electrifying a quartz rock, this revolutionary timepiece provided monumentally accurate timekeeping.
The breakthrough continued with the introduction of quartz clocks and wristwatches in 1968. This timepiece replaced the traditional balance wheel, which oscillated at 5 beats per second, with a quartz crystal resonator vibrating at an astounding 8,192 Hz. Powered by a battery-driven oscillator circuit, quartz clocks and wristwatches relied on digital counters rather than a wheel train to calculate seconds, minutes and hours. While the quartz watch marked a significant milestone, its accuracy was dependent on the stable vibration frequency of the quartz crystal, which could be influenced by atmospheric conditions and temperature.
In pursuit of ever more accurate timekeeping, scientists continued their pursuit of even greater timekeeping precision. The concept of atomic clocks was first explored in 1873, and the first accurate atomic clock was built in 1955 at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK. Today, atomic clocks, particularly those utilizing cesium atoms, are considered the gold standard for precise time measurement.
Cultural Perspectives: Clocks and Watches in Different Societies
Japanese Pedestal Clock. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau.
In Western cultures, time is often perceived as an external force, almost separate from the individual person. As such, it is treated as a valuable commodity, and individuals strive to maximize productivity and efficiency. Daily activities, from breakfast to commuting, meals and work schedules, are meticulously compartmentalized to ensure optimal use of time. Much emphasis lies on meeting deadlines and adhering to strict timelines, reflecting the linear concept of time as a linear progression.
In contrast, many Eastern cultures embrace a cyclical understanding of time. They recognize the repetitive nature of life's patterns, where the sun rises and sets, seasons follow one another and generations succeed each other. This cyclical worldview fosters a sense of acceptance, where time is less of a commodity and more of a flowing continuum. Many sociologists have pointed out that within this time conception, there seems to be a greater acceptance of the fact that governments and rulers rise and fall, crops are harvested and natural events recur.
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