See Inside A Matter of Time

A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

In Brief


  • Devices for measuring time have been around for at least 5,000 years and today are essential for coordinating the operation of everything from cell phones to power-distribution grids.
  • The earliest mechanical clocks, invented just before 1300, told time by striking a bell.
  • By the early 1500s inventors had developed spring-driven mechanical clocks that were small enough to be portable.
  • Modern quartz and atomic clocks have made it possible to keep extremely accurate time, which has opened the door to new applications.


HUMANKIND'S EFFORTS TO TELL TIME HAVE HELPED DRIVE THE EVOLUTION OF OUR TECHNOLOGY and science throughout history. The need to gauge the divisions of the day and night led the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to create sundials, water clocks and other early chronometric tools. Western Europeans adopted these technologies, but by 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. The precision timekeepers that were subsequently developed resolved the critical problem of finding a ship's position at sea and went on to play key roles in the industrial revolution and the advance of Western civilization.

Today highly accurate timekeeping instruments set the beat for most of our electronic devices. Nearly all computers, for example, contain a quartz-crystal clock to regulate their operation. Moreover, not only do time signals beamed down from Global Positioning System satellites calibrate the functions of precision navigation equipment, they do so as well for cell phones, instant stock-trading systems and nationwide power-distribution grids. So integral have these time-based technologies become to our day-to-day lives that we recognize our dependency on them only when they fail to work.

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