Why Does Everyone use Months, Weeks, Days, Hours, Minutes and Seconds as Measurements of Time?
Our awareness of time has its roots thousands of years ago. Early man was primarily a hunter-gatherer, but according to academic sources, somewhere around 11,500 years ago, man began farming – by growing crops for his own use.
I remember watching a science show that suggested that planting and growing might have happened quite by accident. Spilled seeds from plants obtained in natural foraging resulted in new plant growth the next season and triggered an “ah ha” moment. Did it really happen that way? While there were no eyewitnesses, it’s as plausible as any other idea. Many discoveries are made by accident, such as the possibility that wild coffee beans salvaged after an Ethiopian brush fire led to the discovery and the idea of roasted coffee beans.
From an equally distant time, or probably much earlier, man became aware of seasons and the sky. The sun was obvious enough as was the moon, but why they were in the sky, why they moved, and why the moon changed shape, disappeared and then reappeared was perplexing.
Stars also changed position in the skies over the year, eventually setting earlier and earlier and finally disappearing soon after sun-set only to later reappear before sun-rise a few months later. These movements coincided with periods of warm, hot, cooler and cold weather – the four seasons – and man began to use the information to determine planting and harvesting.
Much of what follows comes from an article in the March 2007 Scientific American which credits the Egyptians with having created much of the time division we use today. They are credited with being one of the first civilizations to use sundials and of breaking up the day into parts. The Egyptians used base 12, not base 10 as we do. The article states that possibly based upon that or the concept of 12 lunar cycles in the year, that they broke the daylight into 12 parts as well. By the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), they had developed a way of using the presence of specific stars to extend the measurement throughout the night, and by using a water clock.
Around 2000 BCE, the Sumerians from what is modern day Iraq started using the number 60. 60 is the smallest number that is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, as well as by 10, 12, 15, and 20.
A Greek astronomer, Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE), divided our globe up latitudinally into 60 parts. A century later, Hipparchus improved the earlier work and added lines of longitude that now ran a full 360 degrees.
From my astrophysics days, I remember “The Almagest” from 150 CE the work of Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy divided each degree into 60 parts (minutes) and each minute into 60 parts (seconds). This was measurement of position on a globe. The two are connected, of course because we observe a different hourly time of day as we move around the globe.
Converting the concept of position into use measuring time dividing hours into smaller divisions was mostly lost on pre-16th century Europeans. It wasn’t that important to them. Measuring minutes and in some cases seconds, caught on as a way to divide time with the invention of our modern day clock in the 16th century.
While all of this sounds pretty amazing, I remind you that the ancients knew much that was lost for centuries.
Primitive clock like devices have been built and existed from at least 150–100 BCE, such as the Antikythera Mechanism, found off of the coast of Greece near the island of Antikythera. Its builder had perfected differential gearing – using different size gear wheels (30 of them) with teeth that properly mesh. It is mechanically comparable with 14th European clockwork technology. I discussed it in a previous article.
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