It’s only in the last few decades that we have really mastered the art of keeping track of time accurately. Up until the 1950s, a watch that lost only a few seconds a day was a masterpiece, while now we can rely on a cheap digital watch to be more accurate, our mobile phones constantly correct themselves against fixed times online, and atomic clocks are in poor shape if they lose a second every century. Ensuring the progress of time is mapped precisely is no easy feat.
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that this was always the case, and this would also be true, but tracking time with such precision has not always been as necessary. We mutter if our train is two minutes late, and watch the last seconds of football games with growing tenseness as the clock ticks onwards. For the most part, this is a modern phenomenon. If you cannot rely on the totally accurate measurement of time, why would you attempt to measure races in hundredths of seconds?
Since time immemorial
For some remarkably ancient cultures, however, the accurate measurement of time was of critical importance. The Babylonian Empire that ruled over vast swathes of the Middle East several thousand years ago was a nation heavily influenced by the measurement of very specific amounts of time. Over the course of nearly 1500 years, their culture had grown and developed, and conquered other cultures around them. Their way of life was the dominant one for thousands of miles around. One of the most important natural phenomena for the Babylonians was the eclipse, and knowing just when another eclipse was to occur gave the priesthood an enormous amount of power, so this became the driving force behind their desire to measure time exactly.
Babylonians were among the first to begin attempting to measure time, and the water clock dates back to the earliest days of their civilisation. For the astronomer-priests that dominated the Babylonian courts, these were especially useful for noting the very specific times that eclipses occurred. That, in itself, is not remarkable. What really is remarkable is that, from centuries of records kept on clay tablets, the astronomers were able to accurately predict the appearance of any eclipse down to seconds. The length of any given month could be calculated to within a third of a second, which was the smallest unit of time available to the Babylonian astronomers at the time.
The Watch Mechanism of the Time – Water
In the millennia before reliable clockwork mechanisms could be built (or even understood), the Babylonians needed some way of tracking the time that was more accurate than a sun dial. Sun dials were naturally quite common, but not particularly useful for measuring time in minutes, let alone fractions of a second, and so the astronomer-priests used water clocks. It’s unlikely that they invented water clocks, but the Babylonians were almost certainly among the first to connect time and mathematics so intrinsically. The clocks they used were simple things, and instead of providing a simple output like the hands on clocks that we see every day, the water clock determined time by the weight of the water that had drained from it. By collecting the outflow to a set of scales, therefore, time could be measured in the same level of detail as we might weigh out grain. And, of course, because things you can weigh can be sold, we’ve always been very good at weighing things to an extremely accurate degree.
The Babylonians’ fixation on this accuracy and their obsession with time itself is, in fact, the reason that today – three thousand years later – we still measure 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. Unlike almost all modern societies – excepting some especially adamant supporters of hexadecimal – the Babylonians used base 60, which continues to echo today, and with such significance to us that it becomes almost unthinkable to do otherwise. Just imagine that most glorious of watches currently strapped on your wrist without that most intrinsic of numbers, 60.