For whom the clock chimes… with apologies to Hemingway

Every Sunday evening, I wind up an antique wall clock at home. Last evening, I

Pendulum wall clock
Pendulum wall clock

inserted the clock key into two winding points to wind the clock for the week, and painstakingly moved the minute hand around to set the correct time.  Then I made sure that the clock was correctly positioned. If not, the clock either runs too fast or too slow. As I did all these mundane tasks, I began to think of how quaint the whole process seemed in today’s fast-moving world, where things seem to change in a fraction of a second. And I began to think of how the process of time tracking began and changed over time.

So how did human beings first start tracking or measuring time? Ever since humans noticed the regular movement of the Sun, the moon and the stars, they observed the passage of time. Pre-historic people first recorded the phases of the moon 30,000 years ago, but the first minutes were accurately recorded a mere 400 years ago. Atomic clocks that allowed humankind to track the approach of the third millennium (the year 2001) by a billionth of a second are less than 50 years old.

Measuring time in ancient times

The earliest time measuring devices were made to divide the day or the night into different periods in order to regulate work or ritual, so the lengths of time periods varied greatly from place to place and from culture to culture.

An Egyptian obelisk
An Egyptian obelisk

Our sexagesimal  timekeeping was first started in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt nearly 4,000 years ago, Around 3500 BC, the Egyptians used tall obelisks to track the shadows cast by the sun, which helped them separate their days into two halves. They kept improving their time keeping with the development of the sundials around 1500 BC. The ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese civilizations all used sundials extensively.

Oil lamps and candle clocks were used for telling time in China. They were used to mark the passage of time from one event to another, rather than to tell the exact time of day.

And then we have the very interesting Water clock. The Water clock or Clepsydra was

Water Clock or Clepsydra
Water Clock or Clepsydra

invented around 1600 BC. It relied on the flow of water from or into a container. A simple water clock measures time by measuring the regulated flow of water into or out of a vessel of some sort.  Water clocks existed in Egypt and Babylonia as early as 1600 BC and possibly significantly earlier in India and China. While the clepsydra was more reliable than oil lamps and candle clocks, the water flow still depended on the variation of pressure from the head of water in the container. The ancient Greeks and Romans used complex gears and escapement mechanisms to increase the accuracy of these water clocks.

Samrat Yantra, Jaipur India
The world’s largest sundial in Jaipur, India

Sundials or shadow clocks which measure the time of day by means of the shadow cast by the Sun onto a cylindrical stone, was widely used in ancient times. In a typical sundial, the Sun casts the shadow of a gnomon (a thin vertical rod or shaft) onto a horizontal surface marked with lines indicating the hours of the day. It can give a reasonably accurate reading of the local solar time. As the Sun moves across the sky, the edge of the shadow aligns with different hour markings. Sundials can therefore only be used during the daylight hours.

Mechanical clocks

Mechanical clock in Prague
Mechanical clock in Prague

And as we moved to the middle ages, mechanical clocks started being used. Mechanical clocks with continually repeated mechanical (“clockwork”) motion, began to be developed independently in China, the Middle East and Europe in the early Middle Ages.  They used a method of gradually and smoothly translating rotational energy into an oscillating motion that can be used to count time. They used a variety of toothed wheels, ratchets, gears and levers. Early mechanical clocks were housed in church towers or important government buildings. Early clocks did not have faces and just struck the hour for religious or administrative purposes. By the late 14th century, the convention of a rotating hour hand on a fixed dial became common. These clocks were still not very accurate and errors of 15 minutes to an hour per day were common.

Spring Clock
Spring Clock

Spring driven clocks began to appear in Europe in the 15th century and new innovations were developed in order to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. As accuracy increased (correct to within a minute a day), clocks began to appear with minute hands, mainly in Germany and France in the 16th century. By the time of the scientific revolution, clocks had become miniaturized enough for wealthy families in Europe to have a personal clock, or perhaps even a pocket watch.

In 1656, the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed the pendulum clock, based on the earlier ideas of Galileo, who had discovered the isochronism, or constant period, of a pendulum’s motion in 1583. The pendulum clock used a swinging bob to regulate the clock motion and achieved an accuracy of within 10 seconds per day. with this level of accuracy, the seconds hand now became possible on clocks.

Mass production of clocks began in the United States in the late 18th century. In 1836, the Pitkin Brothers produced the first American-designed watch, and the first containing machine-made parts. New innovations and economies of scale with mass production, made the United States the leading clock-making country in the world. Competition reduced the price of a clock to $ 1 or less, making clocks affordable to a large number of families.

Modern clocks

An Electric clock, which winds the mainspring using an electric motor, was patented by Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain in 1840. By the end of the 19th century, the invention of the dry cell battery made electric clocks a popular and mechanical clocks were now largely powered by batteries, removing the need for daily winding.

1915 wristwatch. Electa 250
1915 wristwatch. Electa 250

Meanwhile, the military hastened the development of the wristwatch. Most forms of communication were vulnerable to enemy interception. So the British military issued wristwatches to it’s officers in the late 19th century, so that they could coordinate activities and movements without having to communicate directly during battle. By the end of World War I, all British troops had been issues wristwatches specially designed to withstand the rigors of trench warfare. These troops returned to civilian life still wearing them, and they quickly became an indispensable time management tool for managers and workers. Wristwatches remained an indispensable part of daily life until the early part of the 20th century.

Apple Smartwatch
Apple Smartwatch

With the advent of cell phones in the late 20th century, many people replaced the wrist watch with their phones to tell time, as an alarm and as a timer. But in a remarkable switch around (and a validation of how quickly technology changes) wearable smartwatches are developing so quickly that they could replace smartphones. Smartwatches today, offer cellular connectivity and can function on their own. With a separate data plan, smartwatches can handle basic tasks – texting, emailing, workout tracking – without a phone in Bluetooth range. You can even make phone calls.

But with all the advances in technology, for me, the reassuring tick of my clock and the chimes as it strikes the hour and the half-hour signify a kinder, gentler time, when things moved an unhurried pace than ours. And I think of that immortal quote from the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” – “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”….


How the Gods and the Romans made your New Year

Our lives are run by Time, and time begins with the New Year, in our minds. For most us in the Northern Hemisphere (where roughly 88 percent of the world’s population lives), though, starting the new year on January 1st feels strange and counter-intuitive. It’s the dead of winter and most of nature is quite literally sleeping. The way that we humans devised systems to track time has been a complex affair, influenced by religious traditions, politics, astronomical events and seasonal changes. So with all of those and more at our disposal, why does our new year start on January 1st, which is no time for renewal and rejuvenation.

So why Jan 1?

Simply put, it’s all about politics. When the Romans used a lunar calendar, the year began in March, on the day that the new consuls took office for the year. But the lunar calendar frequently fell out of step with the seasons and had to be corrected. To make matters worse, the Roman pontifices (who were charged with overseeing the calendar), often added days to extend political terms or interfere with elections. And here you were thinking that only the Russians did that….

So in steps my favorite Roman dictator – Julius Caesar – who decided that the

Janus, the two-headed Roman god
Janus, the two-headed Roman god

Roman calendar desperately needed to be fixed. With the aid of Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, Julius decided to do away with the lunar calendar completely and follow the solar year, as did the Egyptians. The year was calculated to be 365 and ¼ days. Caesar added 67 days to 45 B.C., making 46 B.C. begin on January 1st, rather than in March.

Julius also decreed that every four years an additional day would be added to February, thus keeping his calendar from falling out of step. This started our current practice of the Leap year.

The Roman God of beginnings and endings

January had a festival for Janus, the Roman god of time, duality, gates or beginnings. Janus’ has a most interesting association with time. His two heads were said to allow him to see both the past and the future. He was said to have witnessed the beginning of time, and could see ahead to the end.The association between Janus and the calendar was cemented by the construction of 12 altars, one for each month of the year, in Janus’s temple in the Forum Holitorium.

From 153 B.C. onwards, the Roman consuls took office on the first day of January, offering prayers to Janus. The Romans distributed dates, figs and honey to their friends, hoping that the new year would turn out to be as sweet, as well as coins hoping that the year would be prosperous.

The Middle Ages.

By the middle ages, the celebration of January 1st as the beginning of the new year fell out of practice, even with die-hard followers of the Julian calendar. This was because Caesar and Sosigenes were a bit off in their calculation of the length of the solar year. The correct value of the year was 365.242199 days and not 365.25 days. That 11-minute a year error added 10 days by the mid-15th century. So in 1570, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with a new calendar. In 1582, the new Gregorian calendar was implemented, omitting 10 days for that year. And establishing a new rule that only one of four centennial years should be a leap year, thus correcting for the additional days in the Julian calendar. Since then, the Gregorian calendar has become the most widely used calendar across the world and people celebrate January 1st as the precise arrival of the New Year.

Are there other New Year dates?

Yes, there are. Even though most cultures follow the Gregorian calendar for day-to-day functions, plenty of cultures have their own calendars. Religious calendars from the Muslim, Hindu and Jewish traditions specify the beginning of their new year at different times in the Gregorian calendar. For example:

  • Sep/Oct in the Judaic tradition. The Jewish new year festival of Rosh Hashanah comes between September and October.
  • Changes every year, in the Islamic tradition. The Islamic new year fluctuates, thanks to it’s lunar calendar.
  • Persians and many others mark the new year on the first day of spring, in a festival called Nowruz. Nowruz coincides with the vernal equinox, which falls between March 19 to 21st and comes when day and night are exactly equal in length.
  • March / April, for Hindus. There are two schools of thought in the Hindu Calendar. One is lunar and the other is solar. So for some Hindus, the month of
    Balance of sweetness and bitterness
    Balance of sweetness and bitterness

    Chaitra is the first month and for others the month of Vaishaka is the first month. The first day of the month of Chaitra or Vaishaka (spring) is known as Yugadi (yuga – year and adi – beginning). Both dates fall in March / April according to the Gregorian calendar. Growing up in India, I remember that unlike the Roman tradition of just sweets, the Hindu new year tradition of bevu-bella (neem and jaggery) signified the symbolic balance of bitter and sweet in the new year.

  • January or February, for the Chinese. The Chinese New Year is also a spring festival which is a lunar festival and generally falls in end January or early February.

While a lot of cultures have their New Year’s day on different dates, celebrating the Julian/Gregorian New Year’s Day on January 1st is now universal. And the Times Square ball drop on a chilly New York night is a much watched tradition world-wide.

As we help our customers track time. we’ll bring you more interesting tidbits about work, time, life, phone and the balance between them. Wish you a very joyous, peaceful and healthy 2019.

Until next time!