Keeping Time - Clocks - The ticking of the clock
The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age. Lewis Mumford
The only part of a clock’s makeup that could be considered “natural” is its twenty-four hour cycle. Twenty-four hours is the amount of time it takes for the earth to rotate once on its axis, so it makes sense for that to be the amount of time used to qualify a day. Within the realm of that day, however, there was never any rule saying that we must have 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute; that concept is entirely man made. That subdivision originated because the Mesopotamians didn’t like having to deal with fractions all the time. Since 60 can be divided in so many different ways, they chose to base their time system off of the number 60, and so it continues until this day.
When mechanical clocks came into being therefore, it was natural to develop clocks whose hours would always have 60 minutes. Well . . . maybe not always. During the time of the French Revolution, from 1793 to 1795, they completely changed around the clock so that there were 10 hours in a day, 100 minutes in an hour, and 10 seconds in a minute. The decimal system was accurate, but too hard for people to learn, and so it didn’t catch on. Although the mechanical clock didn’t invent hours and seconds, it standardized them. Whether keeping track of 60 or 100 minutes in an hour, imbalances in nature could not alter exactly what the hands on the clock stood for.
Prior to pendulum clocks, mechanical clocks couldn’t accurately keep track of seconds. Though it was originally Galileo who observed the accuracy of the movement of a pendulum, it wasn’t until 1656 when Christian Huygens patented the first pendulum clock. Though the first pendulum clocks were driven by weights, most of the ones you buy nowadays have the pendulum movement powered by an electric battery.
The quartz era of clock making followed right behind the pendulum’s. Quartz crystals vibrate millions of times per second with such precision that they reveal irregularities in the movement of the earth itself. J.W. Horton and Warren A. Marrison developed the first quarts clock, though it took up most of the space found in a small room to store it in. Quart movements are now the most popular type on the market and are found inside everything from calculators, computers, wristwatches, and of course clocks. Nowadays, quartz clocks are so precise that they allow even the casual user to keep track of time to the point where only one second is lost every ten years.
Though the progress made from the origin of the mechanical clock up through to the achievements of the quartz clock was broad and far reaching, more precision was yet to come. The second, as we knew it, was soon to be reinvented with the arrival of the atomic clock where scientists and engineers now keep track of milliseconds, microseconds, picoseconds, and all the way up to nanoseconds and beyond. This ever continuing march toward measuring perfectly accurate time seems to leave forgotten the time when clocks first starting measuring hours without minute hands, and when seconds were only imagined, not made increasingly smaller.
- Barnett, Jo Ellen. Time’s Pendulum. NY: Plenum Press, 1998.
- Goudsmit, Samuel and Robert Claiborne. Time. NY: Time Incorporated, 1980.
- Clockworks. “Quartz Watch.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2000. 10 March 2007.