Who invented time?

Who invented time?

of reading - words

Since man has existed on earth, he has never stopped looking for new ways to measure time in order to better regulate his activities and understand what is happening around him. However, watches, clocks and various watchmaking products only came into existence centuries AD.

Prehistoric man relied on the movements of the sun, moon and tides to find his way through time. But what is the truth of this? And who invented the concept of time and time? Find out more in this article.

Time, a notion born of a cycle

But where does the idea of inventing time come from? Its notion simply comes from observing the repetition of natural phenomena, more precisely temporal cycles. Day begins with sunrise and ends at nightfall. The sun reappears and the cycle returns. The same repetitive movement is observed with the moon.

Thus, a month symbolizes a total lunar cycle which includes 4 phases corresponding to weeks. The concept of year was created by referring to the changes of the seasons and the positions of the sun during these climatic variations.

Once the solar zenith was determined, ancient civilizations could easily count each sunrise and sunset until they reached a new zenith. This is how the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Mayans established the calendar. For them, a year had 360 days. However, the first divisions of time were made by Sumerian astronomers and mathematicians.

cycle of time

Why wasn't the decimal system used as a time reference?

Nowadays, the decimal system is the basis of arithmetic and mathematics. And you might ask yourself why, then, have men not referred to this system to invent the time?

In the 3rd millennium B.C., the Sumerians used the sexagesimal system instead. Decimal counting first appeared only in the first millennium B.C. among the Indians, around 1400 B.C. among the Chinese and around 300 B.C. among the Greeks.

The invention of time according to the sexagesimal system

The Sumerians prioritized the use of the number 60 in time counting for the simple reason that this number is easily divisible. This way of thinking was passed on to the Akkadians and then to the Amorrites. These two colonies respectively conquered the land of the Sumerians in 2400 BC and 1800 BC.

The Amorites, or better known as the Babylonians, not only incorporated the sexagesimal system into their mathematics, but also sought to bring more precision to the measurement of time. They used the heartbeat to define a second and after 60 repetitions of seconds, they created the concept of the "minute". After 60 minutes they create the concept of time. And after 24 hours counting down from a sunrise, they were able to identify a looped cycle, hence the invention of the day.

sexagesimal system

Sexagesimal units, a chronicle of evolution over the centuries

The chronology has changed over the years, however, men have persisted in using sexagesimal units to identify time. The 60 system spread rapidly eastward in China, India, and Persia, then westward to Rome, Egypt, and Carthage. Moreover, this system, originally created by the Sumerians, ideally fits the 12 hours of the stars according to Chinese astrological discoveries.

It also accommodated imperial military strategies to divide the night before into several equal parts. The Egyptians identified three vigils while the Romans defined four.

Centuries later, Islamic and Greek innovations in geometry led to the discovery that the number 360 was the perfect measure of the earth's orbit and then of a circle. This immense discovery once again highlights the importance of the sexagesimal system in the concept of time. In the 14th century, the appearance of the clock divided into sexagesimal quadrants underlines it well.

Notion of time: how did it become conscious?

If the invention of time is associated with the discoveries of the Sumerians, then the Babylonians, the notion of time or more precisely the study of time only became conscious in the 16th century BC, at the time of the Mycenaean civilization.

In Greek mythology, we find the god Chronos who represents space-time as well as destiny. Moreover, many words related to time such as the chronometer owe their existence to the research of the Greeks.

Over the centuries, many Greeks have tried to better analyze time in order to better understand its chronicles in many fields: scientific, philosophical, religious ... We can particularly cite Aristotle for his works that consider space-time as a number of movements made according to its anterior and posterior.

In the 19th century, Albert Einstein returned to the debate and studied the notion of time in detail thanks to his famous theory of relativity.

What are the different means used to measure time over the centuries?

Now that you know the origin of the inventors of time, it is time to focus on the different instruments used over the centuries to measure it, from sundials to mechanical clocks.

The sundial

The sundial is the first device developed to know the time since antiquity. Easy to realize, it works perfectly well in countries where the sun is present during the day. However, as a disadvantage, it loses some precision and is not very transportable. In addition, it can only work during the day in the presence of sunlight and is mainly used as a local clock.

During centuries, the sun dial is more and more perfected to give birth to several horizontal, vertical models...

Its principle remains quite simple to understand. It measures the movement of the shadow emitted by a stick once it is exposed to the sun's rays. Called gnomon or style, this stick takes into account the different variations in the position of the sun according to the hours spent and the seasons.


The Water Hourglass

To measure the flow of time, man had the brilliant idea of using the clepsydra. This word takes its name from the Latin clespydra with the meaning "who steals water". Thus, it is an instrument that retains water and whose purpose is to evaluate durations.

The Clepsydra takes the form of a container with an orifice added to its base. It is filled with water so that it flows through this orifice. As the water level drops, the time elapsed can be read off the graduations added to its surface. In order to prevent it from flowing too fast, the designers of the chronological container give it a flared shape.

The first clepsydras date from the 3rd millennium BC, in the time of the Sumerians. A priori, they allowed to count time, but in an imprecise way. Indeed, many factors could modify the flow of water: the presence of limestone, impurities, the shape of the vase, the temperature of the water...

From Egypt, the water clock spread successively to Greece and then to Rome. It was perfected until the 17th century. Moreover, the monasteries exploited it in order to develop the first models of alarm clocks to ring when it is time to pray.

The incense clock

Used mainly in China in the 6th century BC, the incense clock works on the principle of burning incense at a constant speed. Widespread throughout the world, it was still in use in the 17th century.

chinese incense clock

The graduated candle

Unlike the clepsydra which uses water to measure the hours, the graduated candle uses fire. In the 9th century, its concept was born from the idea of Alfred the Great who wanted to count his hours of prayers with the help of a candle. At regular intervals, the candle is made to release beads to mark time.

Although they are imprecise regarding the notion of time, graduated candles were widespread throughout medieval France for their great practicality.

graduated candle

The hourglass

In the year 1000, the history of time measuring instruments underwent a great evolution with the appearance of the hourglass. Simple and practical, this object keeps a principle quite similar to the clepsydra by counting the passage of time, but this time with fine sand as content. In practice, the duration of this flow depends on the quality and quantity of the sand, as well as the dimensions of the hole and the hourglass as a whole.

Reliable and accurate, it is inexpensive, but requires to be turned several times over long periods of time. Sailors used it for all sea voyages before the chronometer appeared. It would have known its heyday between the 14th and 18th centuries.


The mechanical clock

At the same time as the invention of the hourglass, mechanical watchmaking was born. The first models of mechanical clocks were designed in the 13th century and kept the principle of weight reduction to operate gears.

They did not have hands and dial, but were mainly used as alarm clocks. In this sense, they sounded at imprecise hours that could vary if it took time to adjust them. The mechanism of the first clocks depended either on the sundial or the hourglass. The addition of a dial and time display was not developed until the fifteenth century.

Pendulum clock: the invention of Christian Huygens

In 1658, the Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens invented the first prototype of a pendulum clock. It has only one hand that rotates on a 24-hour cycle. In addition to being cumbersome, it had to be reset frequently to avoid errors.

The minute hand appeared a few decades later.

What about modern watchmaking?

In parallel with the evolution of means of transport, telegraphs and railways, man wanted to measure time more precisely.

The electric clock

To rival mechanical watches, the design of the electric clock was created in 1840 by Alexandre Brain. Nevertheless, his work was not widespread until 1952 following the miniaturization of batteries. Indeed, at its beginnings, it was necessary to use a whole cumbersome system to operate an electric clock.

The quartz clock

At the beginning of the 20th century, the quartz clock makes its appearance and evolves in parallel with the electric clock. Its invention dates more precisely in 1927 by JW Horton and Warren Morrison.

The two inventors wanted to exploit quartz to design a watch that was easy to use and practical for measuring time.

A mechanism 10 times more precise than mechanical clocks!

Present in abundant quantities in nature, quartz emits frequencies at over 30,000 Hz, which is a high vibration that promotes chronic high precision.

With each vibration, small doses of electrical charges appear on its surface before disappearing. This is the piezoelectric effect. This effect stabilizes the electronic oscillation and provides a clock mechanism that is 10 times more precise than that of a mechanical clock. 

From 1970 onwards, the evolution of quartz watchmaking condemned the progress of the electric watch, which seemed more difficult to understand.

Watchmaking in the 21st century: time & decoration on display

The appearance of the quartz clock has well evolved the history of watchmaking to a modern era where watch can mean something else than measuring time.

In addition to their high precision, clocks of the 21st century can be perfectly integrated into the interior decoration of a room to enhance its value. They come in all sizes, shapes, styles and colors to suit all tastes. And to keep a vintage style, pendulum clocks are a must to choose.

The 21st century is also marked by the appearance of wristwatches that you can easily hang on your wrist to see the time. Between quartz watches and mechanical watches, you have a wide choice.