It’s the end of the first month of another new year, and we’re all wondering where the time went. Some of us wanted to focus on self-care and take the steps required to having more energy, but there seems to be little to no time for changing habits. Have you ever considered that you may be looking at time the wrong way?
Many cultures understand time differently, and this knowledge could motivate you to transform your New Year’s resolutions into lasting habits after all. Hey, even Mahatma Gandhi, a man who owned very few material possessions, believed in keeping a watch. Check out these different timekeeping mechanisms that people have used throughout history to keep track of time and how they spend it.
Stars and Sticks
Prehistoric man observed the stars, changes in season, and the changes in light from day and night to develop methods of measuring time and planning travel. The oldest image of a star pattern, the constellation Orion, is recorded on a piece of mammoth tusk that’s 32,500 years old. In order to plan nomadic activity and farming, prehistoric man observed the location of stars from various locations and used poles, sticks and larger objects such as pyramids to measure the shadows of the sun.
The Mayas invented a calendar of extreme accuracy that’s physically represented by the Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá, constructed around 1050. The pyramid contains four stairways that contains a total of 365 stairs, equivalent to the number of days in a calendar year. Remarkably complex, the Mayan calendar was adopted by the other Mesoamerican nations, such as the Aztecs, to keep track of cycles of the Earth.
The Aztecs held a different philosophy than the West and perceived time as being cyclic. As a result, they created two calendar wheels, one for the gods’ rulings in the 260-day cycle and the other for the 365 year days of agriculture. Unlike the Mayan calendar, the Aztec system was not precise. A certain date referred to multiple periods in a year, and there were only two divisions, or seasons: the xiuhpohualli, considered to be the agricultural calendar based on the sun, and the tonalpohualli, considered to be the sacred calendar during which the gods were given their own day to rule over.
The sundial dates back to the Egyptians in 1500 BC, and even after the mechanical clock was developed in the 14th century, Central Europe continued to use this method of telling time. Also known as shadow clocks, the sundial consists of a long stem with five variable marks and an elevated crossbar. This crossbar casts shadows over the marks as the sun rises and falls, indicating whether it’s morning or afternoon, as well as the summer and winter solstices.
A thin candle with consistently spaced markings, the candle clock indicates the passage of periods of time. The first written reference to the use of a candle clock comes from a Chinese poem around the year 520 AD. In the poem, the candle clock is expressed as a way of tracking time without the sun, during the night.
A water clock, also known as “water thief,” or clepsydra in Greek, measures time by the regulated flow of liquid into and out of a marked vessel. The water clock is known to have existed in Babylon and in Egypt around the 16th century BC, and the oldest water clock dates back to 1417-1379 BC. There is an inscription on the tomb of the Egyptian court official Amenemhet that identifies him as the inventor.
Invented in Europe during the late 13th century, the hour glass, or the sand glass, measures the passage of time with more accuracy than a water clock. It’s rate of flow exists independently of the depth of the upper reservoir, and it didn’t freeze in winter. Today, hourglasses are ornamental and commonly used as decor in home offices.
The verge escapement, also known as the crown wheel, is the mechanism in a mechanical clock that advances the gear to make the ‘ticks’ we hear. Used from the 14th century until about 1800, the verge escapement inspired the invention of clocks and pocket watches. Because of the verge escapement, we moved away from measuring time with the flow of liquid and to repetitive, oscillatory processes for better accuracy.
Clockmaking was a craft that began in Europe around the time that the verge escapement was invented. In Nuremberg and Augsburg, Germany, clockmaking became very popular and came to specialize in wooden cuckoo clocks. While the wristwatch was invented in 1868, it was considered a lady’s bracelet and intended as jewelry only. In the early 1900s, Louis Cartier created the Santos wristwatch, the first one designed for practical use.
Today, atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping devices we’ve got. You can find the first atomic clock, invented in 1949, on display at the Smithsonian Institution!