Posted on July 15, 2013


From H.G. Wells to Batman’s villain Francis Grey to Heroes’ Hiro, humankind has been fascinated by the idea of controlling this phenomenon called Time. Perhaps it’s for the best that timepieces are as close as we can get to harnessing the power of chronology. But how did clocks come about?

The first notable timepiece was the sky. The motion of the sun across the sky, followed closely by the moon, was our first indication of a cycle. We call this passage of time a day. The first indication of tracking how much the sun has moved happened in 5000 BC, and was the function of the sundial, or more specifically, the gnomon. A gnomon is not a garden gnome with dreads, but a tall pointed protrusion projecting from the sundial’s face. (But maybe that’s where the pointy-hat fella got his name). Some of the first gnomons were ancient Babylonian and Egyptian obelisks. Using the shadows cast by the obelisks, ancients could track time, most commonly in relation to half-day, known today as noon.

But obelisks and sundials weren’t completely efficient. You couldn’t use them effectively when weather was inclement, and you couldn’t use them at night. Candles with predictable burning speeds were often used as supplements to sundials. “Candle clock” is actually a misnomer. They should instead have been named “candle timers.” The candle clocks couldn’t tell you what time it was, but by watching the candle melt past a series of marks to the side of the candle one could tell how much time had gone by. These increments of time weren’t clearly defined, and as a matter of fact it wasn’t until approximately 1200 AD that even hours were defined, and four hundred years after that when the pendulum made a regular appearance on all newly-produced clocks.

Pendulum clocks took time keeping to a new level of accuracy; something that was appreciated in the boom of the industrial age of trains. By the 1880s train travel and cargo hauling was so integral to society that we could set our clocks by it. Literally. Train time on depot clocks was the paradigm of time. Never was accurate time keeping more crucial than scheduling when the next train went out or when to be at a depot to catch a train.

Today we take the accuracy of time keeping for granted. Nearly everyone has a watch or two — or even a collection. Modern watches and clocks have jewels, movements, smooth second hands, digital displays, and multiple functions. They don’t call it “complication” for nothing. And when our cell phone service fails, our phones default to their second most useful function: telling us the time. Through history we have measured time in a multitude of manners, but it all comes back to observation. Clocks create a way of making observation uniform, and uniformity is like the big security blanket of the masses. But sadly, now that we know the way time passes, we also know deadlines, billing cycles, and that time will bring about the death of us. Perhaps that first sundial wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

Posted in: science, writing