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Telling Time: A Brief History

Updated on December 29, 2017
Patrick Patrick profile image

Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years

A sundial



For most part of human history, time has been calculated by simply tracking the heavenly rhythms of the solar bodies. By seeing the sun rise and set, it has been possible to approximate what time it is. On the other hand, different seasons, presence of various star alignments etc has allowed people to tell what period it is and so forth. However, it was not possible to accurately tell time. For this reason, human beings began to slowly build tools that would help measure the flow of time better using such tools as sundials while others like the Stonehenge were used for the purpose of tracking seasonal milestones like the summer solstice. However, as a result of changing patterns, it was still not possible to accurately tell time in hours, minutes and seconds. For this reason, there was a need to develop better tools that would make this possible.

Galileo Galilei

From the works of Duomo of Pisa, Galileo Galilei began to experiment with the pendulum as he continued pursuing the idea of "equal time". For many people, it was not possible to accurately do this given that most of the tools that existed at the time would gradually loss time. After fifty eight years, with the help of his son, Galileo began to draw up plans for the first pendulum clock, which ultimately became a popular sighting across Europe by the end of the following century. This tool was also more reliable and accurate; a hundred times more accurate that its predecessors - Losing or gaining only a minute or so a week - the pendulum clock brought about a change in the perception of time that we still live with today.

Pendulum clock


Pocket watch

During the nineteenth century, Aaron Dennison, a son of a Massachusetts cobbler borrowed a new process for the manufacture of armaments through the use of standardized, interchangeable parts. He went on to apply this technique in watch making. Although the process took a long time and money to produce watches, Dennison got an idea that would allow him to produce cheaper watches without the conventional jeweled ornamentation that was common with the traditionally adorned pocket watches. However, despite these improvements, there was still a great need to standardize time. William F. Allen, a railroad engineer in the 1880s took up this task. This resulted in the globe being divided in to time zones with GMT (Greenwich Meridian Time) being set as the international clock. Here, telegraphs found use in time keeping. According to Johnson (83) "consulting the sun was no longer the most accurate way to tell the time. Instead, pulses of electricity travelling by telegraph wire from distant cities kept our clocks in sync". In the 1920s, quartz crystals were also used to improve upon the clock with the first clock that kept time from regular intervals vibrations of these crystals being developed in 1928 by W.A. Marrison of Bell Labs. This helped increase the accuracy with which time was measured .In the 70s, with cheaper technology, this also helped produce handheld watches that was widely available to everyone. Today, microprocessors are used to help measure time more accurately to microseconds and even nanoseconds.

© 2017 Patrick


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