Exploring the History of Timekeeping

Given the science, precision, and modern technology that combine to create today’s amazing timekeeping devices, one can’t help asking: “Just how did people at the dawn of civilization keep time?”

The Debut of Shadow Tracking

Back in the earliest days, time meant either day or night. Ancient peoples relied on the sun and its position in the sky.

About 5,000 years ago, Babylonians and Egyptians started measuring time through the use of calendars to coordinate communal activities and activities pertaining to the “harvest.” Based on natural cycles, the calendars considered the solar day, lunar month, and solar year.

The first timekeeping devices depended tracking the sun’s movement via the length of its shadows. Did you know that the earliest known shadow clock is from 10th century Egypt? It’s a T-shaped bar engraved with the names of five “hours.”

Introduction of the Sundial

The shadow clock was a precursor to the sundial, invented by Arab mathematicians and astronomers during the Middle Ages. The sundial had a superior design as its shadow-casting piece pointed to the North Pole rather than being perfectly vertical (pointing to the zenith). This allowed greater accuracy by telling time via shadow direction not length of the shadow.

In contrast to the sundial, the nocturnal or night-clock was centered on the Pole Star and its arms rotated to line up with the end stars of the Big Dipper.

Also invented during the Middle Ages was the astrolabe, considered by some to be mankind’s oldest scientific instrument. Able to tell time from both the sun and the stars, it was also small and portable. It could be regarded as the first watch.

Water Clocks and Candle Clocks

Many people in the Middle Ages, though, still relied on tried-and-true sundials, but rainy or cloudy days were an issue. In the march toward accurate time keeping, water clocks were invented – but they were costly, cumbersome, and didn’t take well to freezing temperatures. Hourglasses too were invented but not that widely used.

Another creative but quirky solution? In Anglo-Saxon England, King Alfred invented the “candle clock” – and carried a supply of equal-length candles everywhere he went. When lighted, each candle marked the passing of a certain amount of time. 

Monastic Influence & Mechanical Clocks

In the Middle Ages, monasteries epitomized the highest level of order, sanctuary, and routine within an uncertain and imprecise world. The mechanical clock was essentially “born” through the efforts of monks (who needed to ring bells to call people to prayer) and their monasteries – either literally or through their influence on the state of mind of the age.

Records show that by the 13th century some cities also had mechanical clocks. Still, they were rare throughout the Middle Ages. The first mechanical clocks consisted of a falling weight tied to a rope wound around a revolving drum. They had no dials or bells, but a person watching it could note the time and strike a bell.

Clocks also symbolized wisdom and virtue, as reflected in the Clock of Wisdom, an illustrated manuscript by 14th century German-Swiss mystic Henry Suso, a Dominican friar. One illustration showed feudal household members admiring the master’s weight-driven clock.

Mechanical clocks became much more accurate after the pendulum was invented in the late 17th century. Their use also resulted in the development of pocket watches and enormous public clocks.

Impact on Society

With the spread of mechanical clocks for keeping time, people started living their lives within a “framework” of 60-minute segments comprising an hour and 60 seconds comprising a minute. They switched from body time to mechanical time.

So, they ate at mealtime rather than simply when hungry. They slept when their watches indicated it was bedtime. Periodicals were invented. Fashion trends became annual or seasonal, rather than generational.

Owning a watch was a symbol of success. The Bourgeois ideal was to be “regular as clockwork.”

Farmers and their Almanacs

Colonial Americans also paid remarkably strict and close attention to time’s passage and the obligations it imposed. Almanacs were the most popular books in the colonies and remained so after the American Revolution.

Almanacs emphasized the cyclical quality of time, offered a yearly review of seasonal tasks, and helped guide people (particularly farmers) to manage their time.

One good example is from Robert Bailey Thomas’ Old Farmer’s Almanac from the late 18thCentury and early 19th Century. Referring to the first week of October it says: “Winter apples should now be gathered up, as the frost hurts them much… harvest your Indian corn without delay – the birds and squirrels I am confident will.”

William F. Allen & Time Zones

But time – particularly when crossing state or territory boundaries – was still a hazy concept for many people in the 19th century. Relatively few Americans traveled far enough or often enough to suffer because the country lacked standardized time zones.

As a result, there was a sizable public debate about the need for creating such zones. But the railroads, powerful symbols of commercial expansion and progress, had both the motive and the corporate power to reform public timekeeping.

Devised by an association of railroad managers, led by William F. Allen, standardized time zones were adopted by the railroads in the 1880s, and subsequently by governments, other commercial entities and citizens.

Our Time Today

Today, timepieces are invaluable in daily life. People check their watch to catch a 10:20 a.m. flight, pick up their children at day care at 4:30 p.m., watch a sporting event at 8 p.m. or depart for work at the appointed hour.

No longer is time imprecise. It’s also no longer unreliable in rainy weather or night-time darkness. Using precise timepieces that are well-maintained and in top operating condition, people know they’re either “on time” or “running late.”

That coupled with society’s technological advances over the past century (such as the invention of microwave ovens, dishwashers, computers, smart phones, and other time saving devices) allows consumers to pack many more activities into each day.

It’s a more precise, ever-evolving “world of time” – one the ancients could never have imagined.