What Time Is It?


“What time is it?” is such a common question that it seldom occurs to any of us that the measuring of time is an exciting, puzzling, and sometimes frustrating activity. Although we take most happenings in our lives for granted, everything that goes on around us is accounted for on some kind of a timetable.

Without you even thinking about it your heart beats one hundred times a minute. You take a breath every four seconds. And every two seconds your eyes blink. Your body manufactures new skin every few months and other parts of your body are constantly being renewed according to some timed pattern, because cells have a clockwork of their own.

Animals and birds also follow a timetable we call instinct. Some animals know when to burrow into the ground to be protected from the cold winter. Other animals usually go to places that are warmer and where food is easier to find when it turns cold.

Insects live in cocoons during the cold months, and birds know when to build their nests and when to lay their eggs. The bobolink knows when to fly south (as do many other birds) for the winter, traveling the Atlantic flyway. European birds fly to South Africa for the winter. And the Arctic tern migrates to Antarctica, 11,000 miles away! Turtles also travel hundreds of miles at the same time each year from feeding grounds to beaches where they lay their eggs.

But of all our Heavenly Father’s earth creatures, only man purposely records the passage of time. Early man saw the shadow cast by a stick poking out of the ground change positions as the sun moved across the sky. When the sun was gone at night he watched the positions of the moon and stars change as the night passed.

Later, the Egyptians built a primitive sundial using an obelisk. This tall, upright stone pillar tapers to a triangular point at the top and casts a shadow just like the stick stuck in the ground. But the positions of its shadow were marked on either the ground or wall of a nearby building to tell how much time had gone by. The 365-day year was also an invention of the Egyptians, as was the 24-hour day.

The Greeks measured smaller amounts of time with a clepsydra (water thief), which was handy because it was portable. This water clock consisted of two jars about the same size that were set one above the other. The top one had a tiny hole in its bottom that trickled water into the one below it. The inside walls of one jar were marked to measure the changing water level and the time it took for the water to either drip in or out. However, the clepsydra had some problems. In winter the water froze and cracked the jars and it was also hard to regulate.

In ancient China dampened ropes were knotted at equal intervals and then ignited. As the fire smoldered past each knot a unit of time was counted off.

In the ninth century King Alfred the Great of England used a candle clock to tell how long he had worked. He had candles made that lasted for four hours each with three markings per hour on them. As soon as one candle burned out, his priests lit another one. Other people used larger candles that burned more slowly and that could measure up to twelve hours.

Sundials, which are still found in all parts of the world, were first used in Babylon. They are mentioned in the Old Testament and it isn’t impossible that the prophet Abraham used one.

Unlike most timepieces, nothing on the sundial moves—except the sun’s shadow. It has a face with the daylight hours marked on it and a gnomon (Greek for “one who knows”) parallel to the earth’s axis. The gnomon is a triangular piece, usually made of metal fastened at a right angle to the face so that it casts a shadow, marking the correct hour of the day.

Sundials range in size from small ones used as rings, with a sight hole or notch letting the sun through to mark the hour inside, to the gigantic one at Jaipur, India. Its gnomon alone is almost 150 feet long and has steps to the top of it.

Most sundials today are located in parks, in front of public buildings, or in formal gardens. Many of them have sayings that refer to time stamped or engraved on their surfaces such as, “I count none but sunny hours” or “The iron bell may wrongly tell; I err not if the sun shine well.”

In earlier centuries portable sundials were beautifully engraved in brass and some had many sides so that they could be used in different parts of the world. One of the most interesting was the cannon sundial that had a magnifying glass fixed over the touchhole of a miniature loaded cannon fastened to the face of the dial. When the sun was directly overhead at noon each day the powder in the little gun would be ignited by the sun’s rays shining through the magnifying glass and the charge would be exploded.

Some historians believe that it was an eighth-century monk, Luitprand, of Chartres, France, who invented the sandglass or hourglass. Three-minute egg timers are a common sight today, but early hourglasses were used to time sermons in church. Some ran for one hour, others ran for two. King Charlemagne of the Franks had a huge one made that ran for twelve hours and had marble dust in its globes instead of sand.

A series of four sandglasses was used aboard early sailing ships to time the length of the watches (length of time sailors were on duty) and to also measure the speed in knots (nautical miles per hour). Until glassblowers were able to join two globes together, leaving a small inside opening between them, hourglasses were usually made from two flasks joined in the middle with leather or twine. They were held upright in a wooden case. However, some were very fancy and had turned support posts or carved metal cases. The sand was washed, screened, and thoroughly dried before it was put inside.

A novel way to tell time in nineteenth-century Europe was by observing the flower clock. Separate flower beds were laid out in a circle like the face of a clock, with each one representing an hour of the day. At six o’clock in the morning the bloom of the spotted cat’s ear opened. When it was nine o’clock the prickly sow thistle blossoms closed. Every hour the blossoms of a different flower would either open or close, until late afternoon when the evening primrose opened.

Clocks as we know them have had a remarkable history. Large, early ones had no hands, but bells or gongs were sounded on the hour as determined from the time measured on the sundial. Later clocks were powered by water or weights. In 1335 the first reliably recorded clock was set up in a church in Milan, Italy. Some clocks included little mechanical people or soldiers that would come from inside the clock to hit gongs or ring bells every hour.

Later, small clocks that could be carried were made. When people rode in carriages, especially at night, they simply pushed a button and their carriage clock chimed to the nearest hour. When pendulums, springs, and hands were added clocks became much more accurate and useful. During the 1500s watches were being made and in the 1700s some self-winding watches were built.

As the accuracy of watches improved, ship captains were particularly grateful. Sailors had been able to figure the latitude position of their ships by the position of certain stars in relation to the horizon, but finding the exact longitude was much more difficult and had always been a worry.

In 1707 a spectacular disaster happened when an English admiral, Sir Cloudsley Shovell, misfigured his fleet’s longitude and his ships ran into the Scilly Isles, killing 2,000 men. In the 1750s an Englishman by the name of John Harrison built an extremely accurate marine timekeeper or chronometer that helped ships at sea to know how many degrees east or west they were from Greenwich, England, which was the point of zero longitude.

Trains, too, had a serious problem with time. In the United States railroads used seventy-five different times. Each railroad ran according to the time of the most important city it passed through. In 1893 United States railroads divided the country for their train scheduling into four time zones, eastern, central, mountain, and pacific.

Since 1884 the world has counted its time from that shown at the Greenwich observatory. People living east of Greenwich set their clocks ahead of Greenwich time a certain number of hours, depending upon where they live, and those who live west of Greenwich set their clocks back.

For years clockmakers in England went to the Greenwich observatory to check the exact time on its chronometer so they could set their timepieces accurately. Later the adopted son of the Astronomer Royal, John Pond, was given the job of regularly taking the correct time to the clockmakers all over London. When he died his wife “delivered” the time and later her daughter wore the large chronometer on a chain fastened with a safety pin. She came to be known as the “Greenwich Time Lady.”

We have not mentioned the extremely accurate calendar stones of the Mayan people or the calendars of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks. Some of the stones remaining at 3,500-year-old Stonehenge in England also formed part of a calendar and weighed up to a hundred tons each. Many were hauled from as far away as 140 miles.

Nor have we written about the geologic time clock that measures millions of years through its examination of the earth’s underground layers, or the incredibly accurate clock that uses cesium gas so that it won’t gain or lose one second in 300 years.

There is still much about measuring time that mystifies men, but one thing we know for sure is that it never stops—with the exception of two accounts in the Bible. In the first, the sun and the moon stand still until Joshua and his people “avenge themselves upon their enemies” (Josh. 10:12–13). In the second account the shadow goes backwards on the sundial as a sign to the faithful Hezekiah that he will be healed (2 Kgs. 20:1–11).

Remember the next time you ask, “What time is it?” that the answer has not always been a simple one.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt