5 ways our ancestors learnt how to calculate time

When the alarm clock rings on a Monday morning, it is fair to say that this is an instance where we’d prefer that time didn’t exist- but without it life as we know it would most likely cease to exist.

A life without time management and structure would be a very different and a much less productive world- it is hard to imagine a life without rushing to be on time, never mind living without the style credentials a favourite watch can bring.

Journey back in time about 6,000 years when our ancestors began to build civilisations and this was the dilemma they faced. No longer was the division of day and night sufficient- a more unified system of time keeping was required.

Before the clocks and watches we have come to know and love today became so highly integrated into our everyday lives, techniques with varying levels of accuracy were used.

Here are some of the more commonly known methods from the past which enabled man to calculate time.

1.       Shadow Sticks


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Reliant on the light of the sun as the main indicator of time, the shadow cast by a tree, stick or even a body was recognised growing shorter until the sun was overhead. Users also recognised that the shadow would continue to grow in size again on the other side as night drew in again. The shadow stick was one of the earliest forms of the sundial where people judged the time of day and length and position of the stick’s shadow. However, the rotation of the earth made this inaccurate.


2.       The Sundial


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Knowing that aiming north was an indicator to achieve greater accuracy, Egyptians started to use small, portable versions of sundials and those in Europe carved them into the bottom of their shoes. During the Renaissance period sundials changed rapidly and the hour and minute marks we have come to know and love were introduced. Some even included markings to indicate the seasons, the calendar date, the times of sunrise and sunset and points of the compass. Sundials continued to be used when clocks were introduced, but with the proliferation of wrist watches they are mostly used as an outdoor decoration today.


3.       The Stars


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Telling time during the night needed a new strategy where relying on shadows wasn’t an option. The Egyptians developed the first astronomical tool, the merkhet- a string with a weight to measure a straight line. Astronomers would align two of these with the North Star and mark a north- south line. Time was counted off as certain stars crossed this line- a very clever approach.


4.       Hourglass


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Familiar with most people through its depiction in popular culture- made famous in particular by the Wizard of Oz, the sand runs between two glass bulbs positioned on top of each other with a small opening and should indicate up to an hour when the top bulb runs empty. However, it can be constructed to measure almost any period of time by altering the size of the opening between the bulbs or changing the size of the bulbs.


5.       Water Clocks


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Another method which wasn’t reliant on the sun or the stars was the water clock, known as the clepsydras. Operating in a similar manner to an hourglass, the water clock works by measuring water which drips from one container to the other. Water clocks were not quite as portable or convenient as an hourglass however, being so considerably sizeable that towers had to be built to house them. Accuracy was also a problem.

The next time you take your watch for granted consider the extremes which time keepers of the past had to go through in order to keep track of their day- but we certainly know what we prefer using!

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