Monday, June 18, 2012

Time Watch: How knowing what time it is changed everything, and nothing.

SDRZNH7CV622 "Time wasted is existence, used is life." -- Edward Young

The quote above may make you pause and think.  It's like the old story about a lieutenant preparing to lead his troops into battle.  He told them, "I won't waste your lives, but I will spend them to accomplish this mission."

Minutes, hours, and days are your troops.  How you spend them is up to you, but you must not waste them.    

These days you have to know what time it is.  What time you do have to be at work? How many hours did you work this week? What time is your child's school play? How many seconds are left in the game? How many days until your next chemotherapy treatment?

Time as measured is rigid, but time as perceived is flexible.  A boring flight seems to take forever.  A fun day at the beach feels like it's over too soon.  Travel west and your day gets longer.  Go east and your day gets shorter. 

Time is one of the most valuable things you have, and yet for most of human existence, no one knew what time it was.  It's only in recent history that people could even organize their time, agree on how it should be measured, and establish devices to keep track of it. 

In the third century BC in Egypt, Eratosthenes used sundials set in Alexandria and Aswan to make a surprisingly accurate estimate of the Earth's circumference.  Yet it wasn't until 1335 AD that one of the earliest public clocks was placed in a church tower in Milan, Italy. 

CLOCKS AND WATCHES by Johann Willsberger contains an introduction by Arnold Toynbee.  Toynbee describes sailing ships' necessity for precise chronographs to navigate the seas because the sun and stars only tell your latitude, not your longitude. 

In 1714, the British government offered a huge prize of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could build a chronograph capable of keeping time for a voyage lasting six months.  The prize wasn't awarded until 48 years later!

During the Middle Ages, Christians relied on church bells to guide them through the Liturgy of the Hours, and Muslims waited to hear the call to prayer to know when to face Mecca and pray.  In the last few centuries, people checked public clocks found in church or government towers, and listened for chimes and bells. 

As the technology spread and costs came down, businesses and then homes purchased clocks, and eventually pocket watches and wrist watches.  It's weird to think that watches only had one hand until the 1700s.  The first quartz crystal clock wasn't built until 1929, and the first battery-powered wrist watch came out in 1957.

Now calendars and clocks rule our lives, and we all have access to personal timepieces--items previously affordable only to kings and queens.  Technology has provided us a means to measure our time, but not a way to control it.

We have to choose how we spend our hours on this Earth.  Will we use them, or waste them? That's up to you.

(Sources include THE HISTORY OF CLOCKS AND WATCHES by Kenneth F. Welch, and CLOCKS AND WATCHES by Johann Willsberger.  The pic of the public clock in St. Mark's square in Venice, Italy, is from: traveljournals)

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1 comment:

  1. It is an interesting history about the marine clock used for navigation. No pendulum clocks worked aboard the ships. For the type of exploration the British were doing it had to withstand and maintain accuracy in arctic and tropical temperatures and humidities. The chronometer Captain James Cook took with him on his second voyage (1772-1775) was made by John Harrison. Cook was not allowed to take it on his first journey because it was too valuable and the British didn’t want it to fall into the hands of their various enemies. Many of Cook’s charts he made of the Bering Sea and Polynesia were used until satellites improved on accuracy.
    Harrison took 40 years to create that clock and collect his prize money from the British government. I think he was in his eighties.