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Time, Measurement of

Time, Measurement of

The history of time measurement is the story of the search for more consistent and accurate ways to measure time. Early human groups recorded the phases of the Moon some 30,000 years ago, but the first minutes were counted accurately only 400 years ago. The atomic clocks that allowed mankind to track the approach of the third millennium (in the year 2001) by a billionth of a second are less than 50 years old. Thus, the practice and accuracy of time measurement has progressed greatly through humanity's history.

The study and science of time measurement is called horology. Time is measured with instruments such as a clock or calendar. These instruments can be anything that exhibits two basic components: (1) a regular, constant, or repetitive action to mark off equal increments of time, and (2) a means of keeping track of the increments of time and of displaying the result.

Imagine your daily lifegetting ready in the morning, driving your car, working at your job, going to school, buying groceries, and other events that make up your day. Now imagine all the people in your neighborhood, in your city, and in your country doing these same things. The social interaction that our existence involves would be practically impossible without a means to measure time. Time can even be considered a common language between people, and one that allows everybody to proceed in an orderly fashion in our complicated and fast-paced world. Because of this, the measurement of time is extremely important to our lives.

The Origins of Modern Time Measurement

The oldest clock was most likely Earth as it related to the Sun, Moon, and stars. As Earth rotates, the side facing the Sun changes, leading to its apparent movement from one side of Earth, rising across the sky, reaching a peak, falling across the rest of the sky, and eventually disappearing below Earth on the opposite side to where it earlier appeared. Then, after a period of darkness, the Sun reappears at its beginning point and makes its journey again. This cyclical phenomenon of a period of brightness followed by a period of darkness led to the intervals of time now known as a day. Little is known about the details of timekeeping in prehistoric eras, but wherever records and artifacts are discovered, it is found that these early people were preoccupied with measuring and recording the passage of time.

A second cyclical observation was likely the repeated occurrence of these days, followed by the realization that it took about 30 of these days (actually, a fraction over 27 days) for the Moon to cycle through a complete set of its shape changes: namely, its main phases of new, first quarter, full, and last quarter. European ice-age hunters over 20,000 years ago scratched lines and gouged holes in sticks and bones, possibly counting the days between phases of the Moon. This timespan was eventually given the name of "month." Similarly, the sum of the changing seasons that occur as Earth orbits around the Sun gave rise to the term "year."

For primitive peoples it was satisfactory to divide the day into such things as early morning, mid-day, late afternoon, and night. However, as societies became more complex, the need developed to more precisely divide the day. The modern convention is to divide it into 24 hours, an hour into 60 minutes, and a minute into 60 seconds.

The division into 60 originated from the ancient Babylonians (1900 b.c.e.1650 b.c.e.), who attributed mystical significance to multiples of 12, and especially to the multiple of 12 times 5, which equals 60. The Babylonians divided the portion that was lit by the Sun into 12 parts, and the dark interval into 12 more, yielding 24 divisions now called hours.

Ancient Arabic navigators measured the height of the Sun and stars in the sky by holding their hand outstretched in front of their faces, marking off the number of spans. An outstretched hand subtends an angle of about 15 degrees at eye level. With 360 degrees in a full circle, 360° divided by 15° equals 24 units, or 24 hours. Babylonian mathematicians also divided a complete circle into 360 divisions, and each of these divisions into 60 parts. Babylonian astronomers also chose the number 60 to subdivide each of the 24 divisions of a day to create minutes, and each of these minutes were divided into 60 smaller parts called seconds.

Early Time-Measuring Instruments

The first instrument to measure time could have been something as simple as a stick in the sand, a pine tree, or a mountain peak. The steady shortening of its shadow would lead to the noon point when the Sun is at its highest position in the sky, and would then be followed by shadows that lengthen as darkness approaches. This stick eventually evolved into an obelisk, or shadow clock, which dates as far back as 3500 b.c.e. The Egyptians were able to divide their day into parts comparable to hours with these slender, four-sided monuments (which look similar to the Washington Monument). The moving shadows formed a type of sundial, enabling citizens to divide the day into two parts.

Sundials evolved from flat horizontal or vertical plates to more elaborate forms. One version from around the third century b.c.e.) was the hemispherical dial, or hemicycle, a half-bowl-shaped depression cut into a block of stone, carrying a central vertical pointer and marked with sets of hour lines for different seasons.

Apparently 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, civilizations in the Middle East and North Africa initiated clock-making techniques to organize time more efficiently. Ancient methods of measuring hours in the absence of sunlight included fire clocks, such as the notched candle and the Chinese practice of burning a knotted rope. All fire clocks were of a measured size to approximate the passage of time, noting the length of time required for fire to travel from one knot to the next. Devices almost as old as the sundial include the hourglass, in which the flow of sand is used to measure time intervals, and the water clock (or "clepsydra"), in which the water flow indicates the passage of time.

The Mechanization of Clocks

By about 2000 b.c.e., humans had begun to measure time mechanically. Eventually, a weight falling under the force of gravity was substituted for the flow of water in time devices, a precursor to the mechanical clock. The first recorded examples of such mechanical clocks are found in the fourteenth century. A device, called an "escapement," slowed down the speed of the falling weight so that a cogwheel would move at the rate of one tooth per second.

The scientific study of time began in the sixteenth century with Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei's work on pendulums. He was the first to confirm the constant period of the swing of a pendulum, and later adapted the pendulum to control a clock. The use of the pendulum clock became popular in the 1600s when Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens applied the pendulum and balance wheel to regulate the movement of clocks. By virtue of the natural period of oscillation from the pendulum, clocks became accurate enough to record minutes as well as hours.

Although British physicist Sir Isaac Newton continued the scientific study of time in the seventeenth century, a comprehensive explanation of time did not exist until the early twentieth century, when Albert Einstein proposed his theories of relativity. Einstein defined time as the fourth dimension of a four-dimensional world consisting of space (length, height, depth) and time.

Quartz-crystal clocks were invented in the 1930s, improving timekeeping performance far beyond that of pendulums. When a quartz crystal is placed in a suitable electronic circuit, the interaction between mechanical stress and electric field causes the crystal to vibrate and generate a constant frequency that can be used to operate an electronic clock display.

But the timekeeping performance of quartz clocks has been substantially surpassed by atomic clocks. An atomic clock measures the frequency of electromagnetic radiation emitted by an atom or molecule. Because the atom or molecule can only emit or absorb a specific amount of energy, the radiation emitted or absorbed has a regular frequency. This allowed the National Institute of Standards and Technology to establish the second as the amount of time radiation would take to go through 9,192,631,770 cycles at the frequency emitted by cesium atoms making the transition from one state to another. Cesium clocks are so accurate that they will be off by only one second after running for 300 million years.

Time Zones

In the 1840s, the Greenwich time standard was established with the center of the first time zone set at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, located on the 0-degree longitude meridian. In total, twenty-four time zoneseach fifteen degrees widewere established equidistant from each other east and west of Greenwich's prime meridian. Today, when the time is 12:00 noon in Greenwich, it is 11:00 a.m. inside the next adjoining time zone to the west, and 1:00 p.m. inside the next adjoining time zone to the east.

The term "a.m." means ante meridiem ("before noon"), while "p.m." means post meridiem ("after noon"). But military time is measured differently. The military clock begins its day with midnight, known as either or 0000 hours ("zero hundred hours") or 2400 hours ("twenty-four hundred hours"). An early-morning hour such as 1:00 a.m. is known in military time as 0100 hours (pronounced "oh one hundred hours"). In military time, 12:00 noon is 1200 ("twelve-hundred hours"). An afternoon or evening hour is derived by adding 12; hence, 1:00 p.m. is known as 1300 ("thirteen-hundred hours"), and 10:00 p.m. is known as 2200 ("twenty-two hundred hours").

see also Calendar, Numbers in the.

William Arthur Atkins (with

Philip Edward Koth)


Gibbs, Sharon L. Greek and Roman Sundials. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Landes, David S. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, MT: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983.

Tannenbaum, Beulah, and Myra Stillman. Understanding Time: The Science of Clocks and Calendars. New York: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.,1958.

Internet Resources

ABC News Internet Ventures. "What is Time: Is It Man-Made Concept, Or Real Thing?" <>.


Some archeologists believe the complex patterns of lines on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru were used to mark celestial time. Medicine Wheelsstone circles found in North America dating from over 1,000 years agoalso may have been used to follow heavenly bodies as they moved across the sky during the year.


Variations and vagaries in the Earth's rotation eventually made astronomical measurements of time inadequate for scientific and military needs that required highly accurate timekeeping. Today's standard of time is based on atomic clocks that operate on the frequency of internal vibrations of atoms within molecules. These frequencies are independent of the Earth's rotation, and are consistent from day to day within one part in 1,000 billion.

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Time, Measurement of


TIME, MEASUREMENT OF. From being important in the mid-fifteenth century only to structured communities (monasteries, military camps, universities) and large-scale industrial undertakings (quarries, building sites, textile manufactories), measured time by the late eighteenth century had become the fundamental structural element of European social life. If the incidence of time control was felt more strongly in towns and industrial units than in the country, the sonorous hour indications of village church bells nonetheless brought it even to remote agrarian regions. This extension of time control in society was paralleled by major advances in the reliability and precision of time-measuring machines, but the causal relationship between the two is complex and only beginning to be investigated.

Time measurement was available in early modern Europe through the use of shadows (sundials and moon dials), gravity (water clocks, sandglasses, weight-driven clocks), or artificial force (spring-driven clocks and watches). Sundials and waterclocks derived from antiquity, mediated by humanist scholars; weight-driven clocks were an invention of medieval craftsmen, probably in the mid-thirteenth century. Spring-driven timekeepers can be claimed as an early modern invention, a response in the mid-fifteenth century to need for a portable timekeeper comparable with pocket sundials, which, known since antiquity, multiplied from the fourteenth century onward. Sandglasses were probably invented in Europe at about the same time as weight-driven clocks, in the mid-thirteenth century. For all, the ultimate time standard was that determined by the Earth's movements in relation to the Sun.

The various time-measuring instruments available had complementary functions. Sundials find time and display it; even if interrupted in their operation by lack of sunshine, they will immediately show time again once sunlight reappears. Weight- and spring-driven clocks and watches are timekeepers and time showers. Once set functioning, they count and display time without interruption. If deranged, however, they cannot of themselves find time again, but have to be set against a sundial. Throughout the early modern period, therefore, there was an essential complementary relationship between clocks, watches, and sundials, which are frequently found combined, or in close proximity to each other. Sandglasses are timekeepers but restricted to specific short periods, usually up to sixty minutes. They were used for measuring the often predetermined length of tasks such as university lessons, sermons, naval or military watches, and industrial activities.

Technical innovations in time-measuring machines during this period were many and fundamental. Although the usefulness of the force exerted by a coiled metal strip was recognized from at least the thirteenth century, it was not until the invention in the mid-fifteenth century of devices such as the fusee and the stackfreed, which equalized the force exerted as the spring uncoiled, that it could be useful in time measurement. Despite this, the behavior of sixteenth-century clocks and watches was affected by so many mechanical insufficiencies as to be highly erratic if not closely surveyed by the clock keeper, who was a regular appointment in towns and royal and noble establishments. Watches in the sixteenth century were as much valued as jewels as timekeepers, and public clocks were as important as symbols of social and economic status and for the astronomical/astrological indications they offered as they were for telling time. Indeed their behavior in the latter respect is frequently criticized in late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century literature.

The mathematical analysis of natural phenomena that characterized seventeenth-century research into the natural world, however, led to important innovations. Galileo (15641642), having recognized the isochronous nature of a pendulum, also recognized its potential as a controller for clock mechanisms and produced initial designs. Concurrently, but probably independently, Christiaan Huygens (16291695) produced different designs for this purpose and not only published its theory in his Horologium Oscillatorium (1672) but in 1676 revealed the isochronal properties of a flat spiral spring when applied to a watch balance.

These two fundamental innovations reduced the running error of clocks and watches from some twenty to thirty minutes a day to only a few minutes. Such precision allied with increased reliability in the performance of timekeepers, resulting from improvements in lubrication, bearings, and tooth profiles, meant that timekeepers now became viable machines for use in longitude determination, a task that had been proposed for them as early as 1532. Although immense technical difficulties remained to be overcome, by the 1780s viable longitude timekeepers existed and could be simplified for general use. Similarly, in the late eighteenth century, newly reliable timekeepers became an integral part of the development of timed industrial activity, and of the development of interlocking, time-tabled transport systems. None of this affected the watch as a status symbol, but it did transform its appearance as emphasis shifted from the watch as conspicuous jewel to the watch as elegant precision timepiece. Precision in the eighteenth century became the hallmark of quality, the equitable operation of the new timekeepers, of which Paris, London, and Switzerland were the chief producers, being both source and reflection of a new, absolute, Newtonian time.

See also Calendar ; Clocks and Watches ; Galileo Galilei ; Huygens Family ; Newton, Isaac ; Scientific Instruments .


Brusa, Giuseppe. L'arte dell'orologeria in europa: Sette secoli de orologi meccanici. Busto Arsizio, 1978.

Landes, David S. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1983.

Rossum, Gerhard Dohrn-van. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Chicago, 1996.

Thompson, E. P. "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism." Past & Present 38 (1967): 5697.

A. J. Turner

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