A brief history of time

Ever since man first observed the movement of astronomical bodies in the night sky, mankind has been obsessed with the passing of time.  This need to determine the divisions of the passing “days” and the need to plan the opportune time for planting and harvesting led to the invention of sundials and water clocks to not only measure the divisions of day and night, but to measure lunar months and solar years. 

These can be traced as far back as 5,000 years ago with the Egyptians and Babylonians who created calendars based on three natural cycles: the solar day, marked by the periods of light and darkness as the earth rotates on its axis; the lunar month, which follows the phases of the moon; and the solar year, which saw the changing of the seasons as our planet revolved around the sun.

It was only in the 13th century that Western Europe “caught up” with a device called a mechanical clock.  Indeed, the demand for a dependable timekeeping instrument led medieval artisans to create such a device, which could service the requirements of entire communities.  These early clocks were large and expensive, and were primarily found in public places such as churches and town halls, the earliest known example of which was in 1283: a weight-driven mechanical clock in Bedfordshire, England that was installed at the center of town to organize the strict observance of prayer times.

By the 1300s artisans were building clocks for churches and cathedrals all over Western Europe, which indicated the time by the striking of a bell.  This led the church to adopt the name of this new machine from the Latin word for bell: clocca.  These early clocks, however, were too inaccurate and unreliable for scientific application and it wasn’t until the pendulum was implemented to govern its operation that these timekeeping devices could begin to be described as “accurate.”

Indeed, the pendulum proved to be the key to boosting the accuracy and dependability of timekeepers and by the 15th century, a growing number of clocks were being made for domestic use.  This latest innovation acquired “portability” by replacing the descending weight (one of the main features of large mechanical clocks) with a coiled spring.  This little component furthered the development of the portable clock and made possible the subsequent creation of the pocket watch.

Despite its inherent portability, however, pocket watches were still prone to inaccuracy and often lost or gained significant amounts of time each day.  It wasn’t until the development of the lever escapement that watches became more accurate, which prompted production on a larger scale.

In the 18th century, self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker, John Harrison solved the “Longitude Problem.”  Finally, the distance east or west of the prime meridian could be measured, greatly increasing the safety of long distance sea travel and prompting the invention of the marine chronometer.

At the turn of the 19th century, clocks and watches were relatively accurate, and the industrial revolution led to their mass production.  This era saw the rise of American watchmaking companies, which made affordable watches accessible to the general public.  This further revolutionized the industry and saw the development of new types of watches, such as the chronograph.

The 20th century saw further advances in watchmaking technology, including the rise of the wristwatch after World War I, and by the latter part of the century (alas) the invention of the quartz movement, which may have revolutionized the watch industry in general but simultaneously almost wiped out the mechanical watch industry.  Quartz watches are much more accurate than their mechanical counterparts, and are now the most common type of mass produced watch.

In recent years, the rise of digital technology has led to the development of atomic clocks, which are the most accurate timekeeping devices ever created. Atomic clocks work by measuring the vibrations of atoms and are accurate to within a few billionths of a second per day.

The evolution of timekeeping has been driven by a desire for greater accuracy and convenience, and has played an important role in the development of modern society.  From the earliest sundials to the latest atomic clocks, timekeeping technology has helped us to stay on schedule and make the most of our time.