How we tell time has changed dramatically throughout history. In 3500 B.C. Greeks and Egyptians used shadow clocks that depended on the movement and rotation of the sun. The time of day was determined by the length of the shadow cast by the column as the sun passed from east to west. The shadow cast by the markers around an obelisk calculated time and indicated morning or afternoon besides the summer and winter solstices. Obviously, these shadow clocks were useless at night or on cloudy days.
Another method of telling time was the hourglass, believed to be invented by the Egyptians. Two vertically aligned chambers are connected by a small opening, and grains of sand fall at a steady rate from one chamber to another when the hourglass is turned over.
By the end of the 9th century people used graduated candles to determine time at night. King Alfred’s candle clocks measured 12 inches in height of uniform thickness and were made from 72 pennyweight of wax. A mark illustrated every inch, each one denoting 20 minutes. They burned for four hours inside glass boxes framed by wood to keep the flames alive.
Clock originally meant “bell.” In the Middle Ages, religious institutions used bells to schedule daily prayers and work hours. Christian monks became technically proficient and became the first clock makers.
Locksmiths’ and jewelers’ guilds gave rise to the first professional clockmakers. The specialized craft slowly developed into a major industry in England and Europe. In Germany the Black Forest focused on cuckoo clocks; carved wooden birds emerged and sang the time.
The English became renowned watchmakers and passed an act in 1698 that required watchmakers to place their names upon the watches they crafted. When immigrants landed in the American colonies they brought their skills with them, but it was unusual for colonial watchmakers to sign their name, so we know little of their history. Most of the watches sold in colonial America were imported from England.
In the colonies the affluent could purchase watches and clocks. By 1750, newspapers advertised locally-made watches.
The first mechanical alarm clock, invented in 1787, could ring only at 4 a.m. Eighty-nine years later, Seth P. Thomas patented a wind-up alarm clock able to be set for a wake-up time chosen by the owner.
Around 1850, with the beginning of the American system of manufacturing, Americans used automatic machines to mass produce watches with attractive interchangeable parts. The watches were uncomplicated, reasonably-priced and of a better quality.
Women wore wristwatches at the beginning of the 20th century. Men didn’t wear them until after World War I. By war’s end, wristwatches had become fashionable.
The U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Technology presented the atomic clock in 1999. The most accurate timekeeping device recognized today, this clock is able to run for almost 20 million years without gaining or losing a second. It’s used to define official world time, and modern life runs on the official measurement of time.
And speaking of time, we all know that the continental United States has four time zones–Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. Ever wonder how that came about? The completion of the Intercontinental Railroad in 1869 prompted the designation of time zones. By 1876, a wealthy man could travel from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours. (For a man of lesser means, the trip took ten days.) So if a man left New York City at 9 a.m. and reached San Francisco 83 hours later, it could hardly still be 9 a.m.
We’ve come a long way from the shadow clocks of 3500 B.C.
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