5 Surprising Facts About the History of Timekeeping

Time is an abstract concept, but almost all of us around the world adhere to that concept. Despite the fact that we’re small specks on a massive sphere that itself is a small speck in the ever-expanding cosmos, everything seems to be a matter of seconds on Earth. If you’re a few seconds too late or early, it can make all of the difference in your life, from avoiding car accidents to being fired from your job and everything else that happens.

Humans haven’t always kept track of time down to the second, though. It took many generations to get to the current way we perceive and track time. Timekeeping has had a lot of interesting moments throughout its history, resulting in these five surprising facts that you may not have known about.

Using Water

Most people are familiar with the fact that the earliest forms of measuring time came via the sundial, but we also used water to measure time. The low and high tides could tell you what time of the day it was, but specific water clocks were also used, with several regions laying claim to the invention. Mesopotamia, India, and China all have water clock origins that date back as far as 4000 BC.

So how does a water clock operate? There are markings on the clock, and with every drip, you would be closer to measuring one hour. There were two types of water clocks, with inflow and outflow both having somewhat similar designs. To the modern eye, they look more like coffee mugs than clocks, but they got the job done.

The Definition of a Second is More Modern Than You Think

Keeping track of time in an hour is pretty easy once you get the hang of it, as most of us master the art by the time we hit five or six years old. There are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, and 60 seconds in a minute. But what exactly is a second? Most of us simply accepted the second for what it was when it was invented all the way back in 1644 by French mathematician Marin Mersenne.

Mersenne used a pendulum to mark one unit of time, and everyone just adopted it without really asking what it meant. Since then, there have only been a couple of accepted definitions, and the current definition wasn’t defined until 1967. Not 1667…1967. So what is a second? “The time it took the cesium-133 atom to release 9,192,631,770 cycles of microwave radiation when making its ‘hyperfine energy transition.’” Easy enough, right?

The Watch Inventor Killed a Guy

Peter Henlein, a German locksmith, is credited with inventing the portable watch in 1511, changing the world forever as many of us were able to tell the time without needing to rely on a clocktower or the sun (or the cell phone these days). Growing up, Henlein was an apprentice and showed off his new skills as a young adult in the early 16th century.

In 1504, though, Henlein got into an altercation with another locksmith. The locksmith, Georg Glaser, died in the brawl, and Henlein was one of the men accused of his murder. Instead of serving prison time, he was granted asylum, giving him time to focus on creating the portable watch. It turned out that his being granted asylum led to his invention, though poor Glaser isn’t as remembered these days.

12 Hours vs 24 Hours

One thing that all of us can agree on is that there are 24 hours in a day. However, what much of the world is torn on is whether time should be told on a 12-hour basis or a full 24-hour basis. It’s almost right down the middle in terms of which one your country uses. The United States is the largest country that only observes the 12-hour clock while many major nations including Canada, Australia, India, and China observe both clocks.

So why are nations so split between which clock should be used? Simply put, countries that found mechanical clocks easier to use on a 12-hour basis ran with it and made it the standard. Most of these countries are English-speaking or are in North Africa due to the original 24-hour day being set by two 12-hour halves in Egypt. 

On the Same Page

All of us run on the exact same time, no matter what time zone we’re in. It’s important for everyone to have a clock that’s on the exact second, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that this was adopted as Coordinated Universal Time.

You can thank the International Astronomical Union for getting us all set up back in 1928. The first few decades saw a few changes, but on January 1, 1960, every nation linked up times, even staying together during daylight savings and leap years.

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