Although it is no longer used for general computation, the sexagesimal system is still used to measure angles, geographic coordinates and time. In fact, both the circular face of a clock and the sphere of a globe owe their divisions to a 4,000-year-old numeric system of the Babylonians.
The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (who lived circa 276 to 194 B.C.) used a sexagesimal system to divide a circle into 60 parts in order to devise an early geographic system of latitude, with the horizontal lines running through well-known places on the earth at the time. A century later, Hipparchus normalized the lines of latitude, making them parallel and obedient to the earth's geometry. He also devised a system of longitude lines that encompassed 360 degrees and that ran north to south, from pole to pole. In his treatise Almagest (circa A.D. 150), Claudius Ptolemy explained and expanded on Hipparchus' work by subdividing each of the 360 degrees of latitude and longitude into smaller segments. Each degree was divided into 60 parts, each of which was again subdivided into 60 smaller parts. The first division, partes minutae primae, or first minute, became known simply as the "minute." The second segmentation, partes minutae secundae, or "second minute," became known as the second.
Minutes and seconds, however, were not used for everyday timekeeping until many centuries after the Almagest. Clock displays divided the hour into halves, thirds, quarters and sometimes even 12 parts, but never by 60. In fact, the hour was not commonly understood to be the duration of 60 minutes. It was not practical for the general public to consider minutes until the first mechanical clocks that displayed minutes appeared near the end of the 16th century. Even today, many clocks and wristwatches have a resolution of only one minute and do not display seconds.
Thanks to the ancient civilizations that defined and preserved the divisions of time, modern society still conceives of a day of 24 hours, an hour of 60 minutes and a minute of 60 seconds. Advances in the science of timekeeping, however, have changed how these units are defined. Seconds were once derived by dividing astronomical events into smaller parts, with the International System of Units (SI) at one time defining the second as a fraction of the mean solar day and later relating it to the tropical year. This changed in 1967, when the second was redefined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 energy transitions of the cesium atom. This recharacterization ushered in the era of atomic timekeeping and Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
Interestingly, in order to keep atomic time in agreement with astronomical time, leap seconds occasionally must be added to UTC. Thus, not all minutes contain 60 seconds. A few rare minutes, occurring at a rate of about eight per decade, actually contain 61.
- Time's Pendulum. Jo Ellen Barnett. Plenum Press, 1998.
- A History of Mathematics. Florian Cajori. MacMillan and Co., 1894.
- History of the Hour. Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum. University of Chicago Press, 1996.