A Brief(er) History of Time

An Egyptian Sundial, from Wikimedia (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/aa/Ancient-egyptian-sundial.jpg)

As John C. Maxwell once said, “Time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives.” Clocks in general exist all around us, and impact us on everything we do, from food, to sleep, work, and even our social lives. However, this paradigm introduces the important question of why do we need clocks? What’s the origin of clocks in general? And how are they important to our everyday lives? In order to explore clocks thoroughly, and understand why I argue that clocks exist for a purely social function, it’s best to address these questions one by one.

“Time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives.” (John C. Maxwell)


While the technical origin of time can be drawn back to the calendar in Sumer, at around 2000 BC, the Egyptians are technically the first ones to draw a system of time, dividing the day into two 12 hour periods. The Egyptians also constructed large obelisks, which are hypothesized to have been used to measure time relative to the sun. However, the most famous of this style of “shadow clocks”, devices that measured time relative to the sun by looking at the shadow cast, is the sundial. While overall very accurate, the sundial was limited by the very important dependence on the sun, making it useless in cloudy weather or at night. The Romans expanded on this idea, developing further uses for sundials, but ultimately failing to refine the idea until the Greeks developed an alternative, namely water clocks (called clepsydrae), made popular initially by Plato. Further advances were made to water clocks by adding gears, water wheels, and using them in automatons.

“While overall very accurate, the sundial was limited by the very important dependence on the sun, making it useless in cloudy weather or at night.”

Calisthenes of Olynthus, an ancient Greek historian, and the nephew of Aristotle, wrote that the Persians used waterclocks around 328 BCE. However, the earliest water clocks are said to reach back to Egypt, in the manner of an inscription on the Egyptian court official Amenemhet’s tomb, dating back to the 16th century BCE, which credits him as the inventor of the water clock. While water clocks worked efficiently, they also were inherently inaccurate; any change in temperature would impact the water’s viscosity, meaning that the flow would become faster or slower and thus alter the perception of time. The navicula, a portable sundial, was developed as a compromise, and has been regarded with fascination for a long time, and is commonly purported as having arrived from the near East via Spain with many of the other texts from the Merton School. “Derek J. de Solla Price described it as ‘one of the most ingenious and sophisticated mathematical atrefacts of the Middle Ages’” (Eagleton, 1).

An example of a water clock from http://theirwww.marysrosaries.com/collaboration/images/6/6b/Water_Clock_%28PSF%29.png

While sundials themselves were widely regarded as commonly useful as pocketwatches are today, with examples such as “Roman statesman Cicero [who] wrote to his friend and secretary Tiro as early as 42 B.C. that he wanted to set up a dial in the grounds of his Tuscan villa.” (Weishan, 1). Historical constancy aside, the constant refinement of time and its measurement raises the question of why: why was there this vast fascination centered around time? How did it go from these abstracted hour based systems to what we know today? To look into that, one must skip past the development of modern clocks, to the development of trains.

Choo Choo

Trains are not a particularly easy topic to grasp. However, their actions relative to time are; the travel from Point A to Point B on a map, given a constant speed and no interruptions means that you know exactly how long it will take you to traverse that entire gap. However, the increasing affordability of clocks transitioned it away from the homes of the rich and academics, and into the hands of the general public; towns in general began keeping time in the form of a main mechanical clock. This time was based initially on solar time; if ‘Noon’ as an abstract were termed as the time that the sun was at its apex in the sky, ‘Noon’ would be at a different time in Boston, MA, than it would be in Seattle, WA. Furthermore, the second abstraction of time (of a day into 24 hours) meant that ‘Noon’ should hypothetically occur exactly 24 hours after the previous noon. As no doubt everyone has experience, seasonal changes as well as geographical changes vastly impacted this ability to measure ‘Noon’ relative to the sun. This posed a “significant practical problem for railroad operators.

An example of a timetable from http://www.indianrail.gov.in/

Railroad operators needed to schedule the arrival and departure of trains fairly precisely, and wanted to be able to characterize the entire system without reference to dozens of separate time scales” (Yglesias, 1). The idea developed into a layer called “time zones”, wherein by crossing a given latitude (with some adjustments), you would gain or lose an hour to correct you into having a consistent time. However, causing such a rift would massively impede collaboration, leading to “time zones follow[ing] what’s more of a political and economic logic than a geographical one. Argentina has extensive commercial ties to Brazil, and Brazil’s main economic centers are on the coast, so Argentina is in the same time zone Sao Paulo and Rio rather than that of the Brazilian towns directly to its north” (1).

“If ‘Noon’ as an abstract were termed as the time that the sun was at its apex in the sky, ‘Noon’ would be at a different time in Boston, MA, than it would be in Seattle, WA”

While Yglesias argues that time zones should be done away with entirely, allowing humanity in general to have a single time that is referred to as ‘Noon’, it is important to note that this argument is a symptom of a change in our views of time. Earlier, especially with directly influenced mechanisms of time such as shadow clocks, but later as well by the introduction of time zones, time was and to some extent still is measured relative to the sun. Contrast this with notes found in the daily papers on when sun up and sun down are, and you’ll notice the trend is increasingly towards measuring the sun relative to time.

Time Out

Usage of time to measure our natural functions extends well beyond trains, however. “Like the Egyptians, those other great pioneers of ancient astronomy, the Mesopotamians, had made early use of the clepsydra, the water clock, as well as of the gnomon, a simple stake driven into the ground that indicated the sun’s movement throughout the year by its changing shadow, with the shortest and longest shadows at zenith marking the winter and summer solstices” (Richet, 8). It extends to our daily lives, including our sense of natural time, also known as the circadian rhythm. The “phase of these circadian rhythms is entrained by the solar clock (light/dark cycles) and a social clock (i.e. the need to be at work at the same time),” said Roennebarg, when speaking about the influence circadian rhythms have in our lives (Roenneberg, 80). In this manner, the creation of clocks and time in general can be understood to be used as a social manner, which is reflected by the prevalence of clocks everywhere in our daily lives. In order to better examine this social influence, I decided to take a picture of every single clock I encountered in one day (which totaled 55 clocks in a 12 hour period, from 8am to 8pm on Friday, June 5th, 2015).

Examples of clocks and time seen in just one day (June 5th, 2015). Photos by Kirtwinder Gulati

I hope you all enjoyed this brief exploration of time and its history, as well as its impact on our daily lives. While the story of the clock will continue, I challenge you, as the reader, to take one day like I did and jot down every time you see a clock. The number and variety may surprise you.


Eagleton, Catherine. “Monks, Manuscripts And Sundials: The Navicula In Medieval England.” History of Science and Medicine Library 13 (2010): 1–45. Academic Complete [ebrary]. Web. 8 June 2015.

Richet, Pascal. Natural History of Time. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 8 June 2015.

Roenneberg T, Wirz-Justice A, Merrow M (2003) Life between clocks: daily temporal patterns of human chronotypes. J Biol Rhythms 18: 80–90doi:10.1177/0748730402239679

Weishan, Michael. “Sundials.” Country Living 23.10 (2000): 63. MAS Ultra — School Edition. Web. 8 June 2015.

Yglesias, Mathew. “The Case against Time Zones: They’re Impractical & Outdated.” Vox. N.p., 05 Aug. 2014. Web. 08 June 2015.