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A Brief History of Timekeeping

By Edited Sep 7, 2016 0 0

When did time become so important to mankind? Probably as soon as we needed to eat! I imagine that the basic human need to satisfy our hunger would surely have been the driving force behind our clock watching.

Obviously the need to predict when to plant crops or knowing the migration patterns of animals is entirely different to looking at your Rolex to see if the train is going to arrive on time. But the desire to plan and structure our day to day existence has always been and always will be there.

I plan to briefly guide you through humanities journey from watching the moon, stars and sun to mark the passage of time, to the Caesium clocks that are floating in GPS satellites above our heads helping us get from ‘A-Z’ today. There is some sort of symmetry there isn’t there?

The First Timekeeping Instruments

As we became more civilised and society developed, timekeeping would have become more important. As with a lot of things, religion seems to have been a driving force. Using early timekeeping instruments such as candles and incense sticks, these burnt at specific rates. These were used for managing regular periods of worship. Sundials first started to appear around 5,500 years ago (it’s safe to assume they weren’t devised by an Englishman!). The Clepsydra was a water powered time piece that worked with the flow of water passing through a small hole, appeared in the 16th Century BC.

The Early Clocks

By the 14th Century AD mechanical clocks were being made. These didn’t display the time with hands, but rang bells, to mark out time. The sciences started to drive the need for more accurate timekeeping during the following centuries, culminating in a huge step forward in accuracy with the invention of the pendulum clock. Christian Huygens is the man to credit with this success in 1656.

Maritime Navigation

The next significant landmark was the invention of the marine chronometer by John Harrison in 1761. Over a century had passed since the invention of the pendulum clock, but this was the first timepiece that was accurate enough to navigate the oceans with. The longitude problem was solved; I’m sure to the thanks of many a ship’s Captain.

The Industrial Revolution

Public timekeeping was driven by the need to ensure the workers arrived on time for work at the factory. Few of these workers would have been able to afford a clock or watch of their own, most factories had large clocks on show and would sound sirens to alert the workforce to their next shift.

Then the railways came, with their complex timetables accurate timekeepers were essential. Indeed the ‘Rail Master’ from Omega has a proud history and Hamilton a famous American watch brand, has a lot to thank the railways for.

Up to Date

During the 20th century huge advances were made. The quartz crystal oscillator has been with us since the 1920’s. The LED/LCD digital display watches set the standard in accuracy from the 1970’s but watch making seems to have gone full circle with the rise of the mechanical wristwatch again in the 1990’s and the first decade of this century.

The clocks however, well they’ve gone atomic! They have a caesium resonator accurate to less than one billionth of a second a day. It’s these caesium clocks that help that GPS system guide you to your destination today.

Those early clockmakers would be suitably overawed I’m sure.

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