Getting down to brass tacks — our time keeping devices have an interesting history that you’d most certainly love to hear about!
Whether it’s with the bottom-right-hand corner of your screen or the watch around your wrist; we all keep track of time.
Most of our daily routines and activities are dependent on these devices — and yet we rarely take a moment to think about the origin of time keeping and the various devices humans have used to keep track of it though its relatively short history.
> The first wristwatch was made for a woman, Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, by Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe in 1868, according to Guinness World Records
Humans have had many ways of keeping track of time, ranging from the Stonehenge — what some believe to be the most monumental of the earliest sundials, to water clocks and later mechanical watches.
After noticing the connection between day and night with the position of the sun in the sky, early humans quickly took to tracking shadows as a measurement of sunny hours and soon designed obelisks for this reason.
Ancient Egyptians were the first group of people who took to creating obelisks as structures to keep track of time. Obelisks were large, four-sided, tapering structures which cast a shadow on the ground beneath for keeping track of time.
It is in fact an Egyptian sundial which shows the earliest evidence of the division of the day into equal parts. However as you might have guessed sundials cannot be used after dark and hence led to the development of the water clock.
> Even at the dawn of the 20th century, no self respecting real man would wear a wristwatch. They were considered women’s fashion-wear right up to the first world war when soldiers started wearing wristwatches in the battlefield, and with this shift it soon became socially acceptable and popular for men to wear wristwatches in public.
Time as we know it today is measured based on a system developed by the Sumerians. It is a sexagesimal system — which is to say that it is based around the figure* 60*. It is thought that this figure was derived from the fact that you could count up to 12 by using just the 3 jointed fingers of your hand. The five fingers of the other hand are used to count in dozens.
5 x 12 = 60
The fact that 60 is the smallest number that is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 without any remaining fractions makes it even more special and is one of the main reasons we use it as a system for measuring everything from the time to geographical coordinates.
> The first alarm clock was created by the famous Greek philosopher Plato using a water clock. The water that passed through the clock was passed into a vessel and when it built up to a certain level it blew a whistle that woke him up!
More about Plato’s alarm clock.
The first mechanical clocks had no faces or hands. Instead they struck a bell every hour. They were followed by clocks with only a hour hand and later on the minute hand added by Jost Burgiin in 1577 for an astronomer who wanted a more accurate clock for stargazing.
The first pendulum clocks invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1656 were one of the more accurate time keepers of the era. They erred by roughly 1 minute per day which was a big improvement compared to the previous generation of clocks which erred by almost 15 minutes per day.
This loss of time became much more apparent and dangerous at sea where an accurate time was required for sailors in order to calculate their exact position. Every minute lost by a clock created a navigational error of 15 miles leading to the deaths of large numbers of sailors and many missing ships. The problem became so apparent that the British Parliament at the time offered a Longitude Prize of £20,000 for anyone who invented a clock accurate enough for use in navigation at sea.
Over time clocks have been made more accurate with developments such as the quartz clocks which were created in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1972. These clocks used the frequency of a vibrating quartz crystal in an electrical current to accurately keep track of the time.
> A clock in Bristol has two minute hands!
One showing the local time and the second one with the ‘Railway Time’ which was created in order to standardize the time across the whole railway network.
This had to be done because people started missing their trains due to time differences across reigons.
The first atomic clock created in 1955 was accurate to one second in 1.4 million years. It used caesium instead of quartz crystals. A similar yet more complex atomic clock (image above) keeps record of the standard time for Britain and is kept locked deep within the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Although it should be noted that newer optical clocks with strontium or ytterbium are even more accurate than caesium clocks!
So do you know what time it is?