History of Timekeeping

Stonehenge, in England: built around 2000 to 1500 BC, the axis is lined up to match with the direction of sunrise at midsummer.

The Egyptians and the Earliest Timekeeping Devices

At first, man only knew day from night, with no division of the time between. And so it made sense that the first devices were dependant upon the movement of the sun. This was accomplished indirectly by tracking the length of shadows. The earliest known shadow clock is from Egypt in the 10th century BC: a T-shaped bar engraved with the names of the five “hours.”

This device was the precursor to the sundial which was superior in design because the 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 the direction of the shadow rather than its length.

The sundial was invented by Arab mathematicians and astronomers during the Middle Ages and was rare in Western Europe before the 15th century. By this time mechanical clocks had been invented, however, they were still extremely unreliable and the sundial was preferred by many. The “hand-dial” was the countryman’s portable sundial:

In contrast to the sundial is the nocturnal, or night-clock which 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 the mankind’s oldest scientific instrument. Able to tell time from both the sun and the stars, as well as small and portable, it could be regarded as the first watch.

King Alfred and Clocklessness in the Middle Ages

“Water clocks, which were costly and cumbersome, were very rare. Hour-glasses were little used. The inadequacy of sundials, especially under skies quickly clouded over, was notorious. The resulted in the use of curious devices. In his concern to regulate the course of a notable nomadic life, King Alfred had conceived the idea of carrying with him everywhere a supply of candles of equal length, which he had lit in turn, to mark the passing of the hours, but such concern for uniformity in the division of the day was exceptional in that age.” (Bloch, cited in Young, 1988:200)

Influence of the Monasteries

It is with the monks and their monasteries that one finds the birth of the mechanical clock, either literally or through their influence on the state of mind of the age. The monasteries were the epitome of order, sanctuary, routine in a world of uncertainties and imprecision. In order to be able to ring the monastery bells at regular intervals to keep count of the seven canonical hours for prayer, they needed to be able to keep tract of time. “…the monasteries…helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.” (Mumford, 1934: 14)

The Mechanical Clock

The exact birth date of the mechanical clock is unknown. By the 13th century there are definite records of mechanical clocks in the cities, but it remained a rarity throughout the Middle Ages and could usually only be seen in the homes of the rich. The clocks were symbols of wisdom and virtue, as can be seen in The Clock of Wisdom, a treatise on morality which includes a painting of a feudal household admiring the master’s weight-driven clock. The first mechanical clocks consisted of a falling weight tied to a rope which was wound around a revolving drum. They had no dials or bells, but rather, one watching it could note the time and strike a bell. Although they could boast no great accuracy until the end of the 17th century (the invention of the pendulum), their invention resulted in a boom of pocket watches and enormous public clocks.

“The clouds that could paralyze the sundial, the freezing that could stop the water clock on a winter night, were no longer obstacles to time-keeping: summer or winter, day or night, one was aware of the measured clank of the clock. The instrument presently spread outside the monastery, and the regular striking of the bells brought a new regularity into the life of the workman and the merchant. The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existance. Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing. As this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” (Mumford, 1934: 14)

“The clock…is a piece of power-machinery whose “product” is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped to create the belief in an independant world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science.” (Mumford, 1934: 15)

“Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments.” (Mumford, 1934:17)

The impact of the clock on society cannot be underestimated. It provided an abstract framework of divided time made up of 60 minutes and 60 seconds. People switched from body time to mechanical time. They started eating when it was meal-time rather than when hungry, sleeping when their watches said it was bedtime. Periodicals were invented and fashion trends became yearly rather than generational. Owning a watch was a symbol of success and the Bourgeois ideal was to be “regular as clockwork.”

Farmers and their Almanacs

“Colonial and antebellum Americans paid remarkably strict and close attention to time’s passage and the obligations it imposed. Almanacs were by far the most popular books in the colonies and remained so well after the revolution. American almanacs emphasized the cyclical quality of time, by offering a yearly review of seasonal tasks. But they also served as guides to understanding, interpreting, and managing time correctly as it rolled along towards God’s eternity.” (O’Malley, 1990: 13)

An example is from Robert Bailey Thomas’s Old Farmer’s Almanac from the late 18th century/early 19th: for the first week in 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.” (O’Malley, 1990: 16)

“Tables like these suggested that a prosperous, orderly, and well-tempered life could be gained by following nature, by running life according to the clock in the sky.” (O’Malley, 1990: 16)

In a timetable for the workers at a mill, the hours change to follow available sunlight.

William F. Allen and the Standardization of Time

The was a lot of talk and debate before the change to standardized time was finally made. “Time, after all,
remained a fairly hazy idea for most people, fraught with vaguely unsettling religious implications and perhaps better left alone. In America in 1880, relatively few people traveled often enough to suffer from the lack of a standard time…only the railroads, the ultimate symbol of commercial expansion, progress, and the
conquest of space, had the motive and the power to reform public timekeeping.” (O’Malley, 1990: 99-100)

November 18, 1883: “The day of two noons”

A system of standard time zones for across the U.S., devised by an association of railroad managers (lead by William F. Allen) went into effect on this day.. The America in the 1800s and early 1900s “…the change in the understanding of time [caused by the railroad standardization of time] marked…a reformation in
the internal, private understanding of the self…men and women would measure themselves in relation to a publicly defined time based on synchronized clocks.” (O’Malley, 1990: 145) This effect can be best seen in the advertisements of that time. In one, “the mechanical timekeeper…forms the model or pattern
for labor.” (O’Malley, 1990: 162)

In another pamphlet, the mechanical timekeeper forms the model or pattern for moral conduct.

Our Time Today: living the life of a NYC businessperson Time Overloading

“The future is not allowed to plod gently along into the present at a decorous pace; it is being sucked into it.”
(Young,1988: 214)

We make plans days, weeks, years in advance. Politicans are barely in office before they begin planning for the next elections — We’re living in the future rather than the present.

The Time Famine

“As productivity rises, abstention from work costs more than it used to, the cost of the leisure being what could have been earned if the time had been spent at work instead. This cost is, in economists’ terms, the opportunity cost…time is getting increasingly more scarce, and will do so as long as productivity goes on rising.” (Young,1988: 218)

Originally, it was thought that time-saving devices, such as the dishwasher, would allow more leisure time, but rather people are becoming busier with all these devices.

Divorce from Natural Rhythms

No longer do we rise and set with the sun. No longer are work hours limited by hours of daylight. Alarm clocks with their invauluable snooze buttons are the roosters of our time. It is “the colonization of the night” (Melbin, cited in Young,1988: 224), with the development of a “night society” : all-night supermarkets, bowling alleys, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, taxis, buses, airports, gas stations, etc.


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