the contextual life

thoughts without borders

What to Read: A Brief History of Clocks

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Normally, the most popular links I share on Twitter are the ones that direct people to “Top 10” lists. Going along with the nature of the rapidly moving news feed, these posts lend themselves to quick skims that are easily mined for fun facts. Knowing this trend, I was surprised to see that the other day one of the most clicked on articles I’d posted was about the history of clocks, a 4,300 word essay describing the way we’ve come to measure time.

That morning the headline, “A Brief History of Clocks,” had caught my eye because, apparently along with many others, I have a deep fascination with time. I often look for articles on how to make better use of my time. Lifehacker is a site I go to daily to look for the latest organizational software along with time-saving tips. I check out Behance’s 99% for productivity tips. One of my favorite articles, which I believe I found on DesignTAXI, was how best to use those few minutes in between tasks to get (even) more things done.

While I wait for friends to show up to restaurants, or for a coworker in the lobby of our office building for a coffee run, I’m usually early, I check my cell phone continually to see what time it is. Inevitably, as I hardly know anyone who uses a wristwatch, I think about how we all live on the same time now — no more need to “synchronize Swatches” as Parker Lewis and his friends once did in 1990: our cell phones, thanks to towers, are now uniform — or at least that’s my understanding of it.

If those who follow me on Twitter are anything like me, I shouldn’t be surprised by the interest in the article. However, I do wonder how many of those who clicked over actually read it. If I’m to be honest, I finally had the chance four days after finding it. “A Brief History of Clocks: Our Conception of time depends on the way we measure it,” is what one now calls a “longread”. As mentioned, it clocks in at a little over 4,000 words and these days you might as well ask someone to read Moby-Dick. However, I’m here to argue that it well worth the time. It may not help you squeeze in those few extra chores or errands but you will walk away with a few hard-earned fun facts to impress your friends.

Here are a few highlights but I suggest you read it in full.

  • Humankind’s efforts to tell time have helped drive the evolution of our technology and science throughout history.
  • [B]y the 13th century, demand for a dependable timekeeping instrument led medieval artisans to invent the mechanical clock. Although this new device satisfied the requirements of monastic and urban communities, it was too inaccurate and unreliable for scientific application until the pendulum was employed to govern its operation.
  • According to archaeological evidence, the Babylonians, Egyptians and other early civilizations began to measure time at least 5,000 years ago . . . They based their calendars on three natural cycles: the solar day, marked by the successive periods of light and darkness as the earth rotates on its axis; the lunar month, following the phases of the moon as it orbits the earth; and the solar year, defined by the changing seasons that accompany our planet’s revolution around the sun.
  • [T]he growth of urban mercantile populations in Europe during the second half of the 13th century created demand for improved timekeeping devices.
  • Because the initial examples indicated the time by striking a bell (thereby alerting the surrounding community to its daily duties), the name for this new machine was adopted from the Latin word for “bell,” clocca.
  • With uniform hours, however, arose the question of when to begin counting them, and so, in the early 14th century, a number of systems evolved. The schemes that divided the day into 24 equal parts varied according to the start of the count: Italian hours began at sunset, Babylonian hours at sunrise, astronomical hours at midday and “great clock” hours (used for some large public clocks in Germany) at midnight. Eventually these and competing systems were superseded by “small clock,” or French, hours, which split the day, as we currently do, into two 12-hour periods commencing at midnight.
  • The sectioning of the day into 24 hours and of hours and minutes into 60 parts became so well established in Western culture that all efforts to change this arrangement failed. The most notable attempt took place in revolutionary France in the 1790s, when the government adopted the decimal system.
  • [B]y the 15th century a growing number of clocks were being made for domestic use.
  • Astronomers in particular needed a better tool for timing the transit of stars and thereby creating more accurate maps of the heavens.
  • The advent of the pendulum not only heightened demand for clocks but also resulted in their development as furniture.
  • Before the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, towns in the U.S. and Europe used the sun to determine local time. For example, because noon occurs in Boston about three minutes before it does in Worcester, Mass., Boston’s clocks were set about three minutes ahead of those in Worcester. The expanding railroad network, however, needed a uniform time standard for all the stations along the line.
  • The U.S. established four time zones in 1883. . . . At the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., the globe was divided into 24 time zones. Delegates chose the Royal Observatory as the prime meridian (zero degrees lon­gitude, the line from which all other longitudes are measured) in part because two thirds of the world’s shipping already used Greenwich time for navigation.
  • The American Waltham Watch Company, as it eventually became known, benefited greatly from a huge demand for watches during the Civil War, when Union Army forces used them to synchronize operations.
  • With the help of a substantial marketing campaign, the masculine fashion for wrist­watches caught on after the war. Self-wind­ing mechanical wristwatches made their appearance during the 1920s.
  • The precise measurement of time is of such fundamental importance to science and technology that the search for ever greater accuracy continues.

::[Futher Reading]::
Here are some books about time. They range from the scientific, to the philosophic, to the fantastic. Enjoy.

The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction by Leofranc Holford-Strevens
Why do we measure time in the way that we do? Why is a week seven days long? At what point did minutes and seconds come into being? Why are some calendars lunar and some solar?

The organization of time into hours, days, months, and years seems immutable and universal, but is actually far more artificial than most people realize. For example, the French Revolution resulted in a restructuring of the French calendar, and the Soviet Union experimented with five and then six-day weeks.

Leofranc Holford-Strevens brings us this fascinating study of time using a range of examples from Ancient Rome and Julius Caesar’s imposition of the Leap Year to the 1920’s project for a fixed Easter. Those interested in time, history, and the development of the calendar will enjoy this absorbing exploration of an aspect of our lives that we all take for granted. [via IndieBound]

Introducing Time: A Graphic Guide by Craig Callender; Ralph Edney (Illustrator)
Granted, philosophy professor Craig Callender’s Time: A Graphic Guide isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but it does borrow from the genre’s signature visual storytelling to explore the history of time with a fascinating philosopher’s lens, from Augustine’s contention that there is no time to Newton’s fluid time to the static time of Einstein to the contemporary theory that there is no time in quantum gravity, coming full circle. Callender covers a wide range of facets — clocks, psychological time, entropy, spacetime curvature, the Big Bang, Gödel, endocrinology, and just about everything in between — to deliver a sum total of illumination that will leave you with newfound awe for the intersection of philosophy and science. [via Brain Pickings]

In Search of Time: The Science of a Curious Dimension by Dan Falk
In his latest book, award-winning science writer Dan Falk chronicles the story of how humans have come to understand time over the millennia, and by drawing from the latest research in physics, psychology, and other fields, Falk shows how that understanding continues to evolve. In Search of Time begins with our earliest ancestors’ perception of time and the discoveries that led—with much effort—to the Gregorian calendar, atomic clocks, and “leap seconds.” Falk examines the workings of memory, the brain’s remarkable “bridge across time,” and asks whether humans are unique in their ability to recall the past and imagine the future. He explores the possibility of time travel, and the paradoxes it seems to entail. Falk looks at the quest to comprehend the beginning of time and how time—and the universe—may end. Finally, he examines the puzzle of time’s “flow,” and the remarkable possibility that the passage of time may be an illusion. [via IndieBound]

A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, and the Pace of Life by Robert V. Levine
In this engaging and spirited book, eminent social psychologist Robert Levine asks us to explore a dimension of our experience that we take for granted—our perception of time. When we travel to a different country, or even a different city in the United States, we assume that a certain amount of cultural adjustment will be required, whether it’s getting used to new food or negotiating a foreign language, adapting to a different standard of living or another currency. In fact, what contributes most to our sense of disorientation is having to adapt to another culture’s sense of time. We travel back in time to ancient Greece to examine early clocks and sundials, then move forward through the centuries to the beginnings of ”clock time” during the Industrial Revolution. Levine raises some fascinating questions. How do we use our time? Are we being ruled by the clock? What is this doing to our cities? To our relationships? To our own bodies and psyches? [via IndieBound]

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination by Chrisoula Andreou
When we fail to achieve our goals, procrastination is often the culprit. But how exactly is procrastination to be understood? It has been described as imprudent, irrational, inconsistent, and even immoral, but there has been no sustained philosophical debate concerning the topic.
This edited volume starts in on the task of integrating the problem of procrastination into philosophical inquiry. The focus is on exploring procrastination in relation to agency, rationality, and ethics-topics that philosophy is well-suited to address. Theoretically and empirically informed analyses are developed and applied with the aim of shedding light on a vexing practical problem that generates a great deal of frustration, regret, and harm. [via IndieBound] You can listen to Chrisoula on PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge

Time by Eva Hoffman
Novelist, cultural commentator, memoirist, and historian Eva Hoffman examines our ever-changing perception of time.

Time has always been the great given, the element that establishes the governing facts of human fate that cannot be circumvented, deconstructed, or wished away. But these days we are tampering with time in ways that affect how we live, the textures of our experience, and our very sense of what it is to be human. What is the nature of time in our time? Why is it that even as we live longer than ever before, we feel that we have ever less of this basic good? What effects do the hyperfast technologies–computers, video games, instant communications–have on our inner lives and even our bodies? And as we examine biology and mind on evermore microscopic levels, what are we learning about the process and parameters of human time? Hoffman regards our relationship to time–from jet lag to aging, sleep to cryogenic freezing–in this broad, eye-opening meditation on life’s essential medium and its contemporary challenges. [via IndieBound] Listen to Eva Hoffman discuss her book at the Los Angeles Public Library

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant. [via IndieBound] Slate has a physicist take a look at the novel

Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin. [via IndieBound]

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Written by Gabrielle

January 26, 2012 at 6:10 am

Posted in books, on the shelf

Tagged with , , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. The post is very interesting… but I must confess I had an “off-topic” surprise… I also used to watch Parker Lewis, but may be I’m the only one in Brazil, among my friends, who did that… nice TV show!

    Axel Pliopas

    January 26, 2012 at 6:42 am

    • i’m always tempted to say “synchronize Swatches” but have found that when i do people rarely ever know what i’m talking about. i loved Kubiak. great show.

      Gabrielle

      January 26, 2012 at 6:59 am


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