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See Inside A Matter of Time

A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

Uniform Hours
ALTHOUGH THE MECHANICAL CLOCK could be adjusted to maintain temporal hours, it was naturally suited to keeping equal ones. With uniform hours, however, arose the question of when to begin counting them, and so, in the early 14th century, a number of systems evolved. The schemes that divided the day into 24 equal parts varied according to the start of the count: Italian hours began at sunset, Babylonian hours at sunrise, astronomical hours at midday and “great clock” hours (used for some large public clocks in Germany) at midnight. Eventually these and competing systems were superseded by “small clock,” or French, hours, which split the day, as we currently do, into two 12-hour periods commencing at midnight.

During the 1580s clockmakers received commissions for timekeepers showing minutes and seconds, but their mechanisms were insufficiently accurate for these fractions to be included on dials until the 1660s, when the pendulum clock was developed. Minutes and seconds derive from the sexagesimal partitions of the degree introduced by Babylonian astronomers. The word “minute” has its origins in the Latin prima minuta, the first small division; “second” comes from secunda minuta, the second small division. The sectioning of the day into 24 hours and of hours and minutes into 60 parts became so well established in Western culture that all efforts to change this arrangement failed. The most notable attempt took place in revolutionary France in the 1790s, when the government adopted the decimal system. Although the French successfully introduced the meter, liter and other base-10 measures, the bid to break the day into 10 hours, each consisting of 100 minutes split into 100 seconds, lasted only 16 months.

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