"A few rare minutes, occurring at a rate of about eight per decade, actually contain 61 seconds."


Thu, Feb 13th, 2014 11:00 by capnasty NEWS

If you've ever wondered how we ended up dividing a minute into 60 seconds, an hour into 60 minutes but a day into 24 hours, Michael A. Lombardi, "a metrologist in the Time and Frequency Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo.," explains the lengthy and colourful history of time keeping.

Without artificial light, humans of this time period regarded sunlit and dark periods as two opposing realms rather than as part of the same day. Without the aid of sundials, dividing the dark interval between sunset and sunrise was more complex than dividing the sunlit period. During the era when sundials were first used, however, Egyptian astronomers also first observed a set of 36 stars that divided the circle of the heavens into equal parts. The passage of night could be marked by the appearance of 18 of these stars, three of which were assigned to each of the two twilight periods when the stars were difficult to view. The period of total darkness was marked by the remaining 12 stars, again resulting in 12 divisions of night (another nod to the duodecimal system). During the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 B.C.), this measuring system was simplified to use a set of 24 stars, 12 of which marked the passage of the night. The clepsydra, or water clock, was also used to record time during the night, and was perhaps the most accurate timekeeping device of the ancient world. The timepiece--a specimen of which, found at the Temple of Ammon in Karnak, dated back to 1400 B.C.--was a vessel with slanted interior surfaces to allow for decreasing water pressure, inscribed with scales that marked the division of the night into 12 parts during various months.

Once both the light and dark hours were divided into 12 parts, the concept of a 24-hour day was in place. The concept of fixed-length hours, however, did not originate until the Hellenistic period, when Greek astronomers began using such a system for their theoretical calculations. Hipparchus, whose work primarily took place between 147 and 127 B.C., proposed dividing the day into 24 equinoctial hours, based on the 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness observed on equinox days. Despite this suggestion, laypeople continued to use seasonally varying hours for many centuries. (Hours of fixed length became commonplace only after mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the 14th century.)



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