A Walk Through Time

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The Evolution of Time Measurement through the Ages.

Ancient Calendars

Stone 1.gif.jpeg Stonehenge Celestial bodies — the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — have provided us a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout our existence. Ancient civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of these bodies through the sky to determine seasons, months, and years.

We know little about the details of timekeeping in prehistoric eras, but wherever we turn up records and artifacts, we usually discover that in every culture, some people were preoccupied with measuring and recording the passage of time. Ice-age hunters in Europe over 20,000 years ago scratched lines and gouged holes in sticks and bones, possibly counting the days between phases of the moon. Five thousand years ago, Sumerians in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in today's Iraq had a calendar that divided the year into 30day months, divided the day into 12periods (each corresponding to 2 of our hours), and divided these periods into 30parts (each like 4 of our minutes). We have no written records of Stonehenge, built over 4000years ago in England, but its alignments show its purposes apparently included the determination of seasonal or celestial events, such as lunar eclipses, solstices and so on.

Astro2 1.gif.jpeg Viewing the stars to determine a calendar

The earliest Egyptian calendar [Ref.] was based on the moon's cycles, but later the Egyptians realized that the "Dog Star" in Canis Major, which we call Sirius, rose next to the sun every 365days, about when the annual inundation of the Nile began. Based on this knowledge, they devised a 365day calendar that seems to have begun around 3100BCE (Before the Common Era), which thus seems to be one of the earliest years recorded in history.

Before 2000BCE, the Babylonians (in today's Iraq) used a year of 12alternating 29day and 30day lunar months, giving a 354day year. In contrast, the Mayans of Central America relied not only on the Sun and Moon, but also the planet Venus, to establish 260day and 365day calendars. This culture and its related predecessors spread across Central America between 2600BCE and 1500CE, reaching their apex between 250 and 900CE. They left celestial-cycle records indicating their belief that the creation of the world occurred in 3114BCE. Their calendars later became portions of the great Aztec calendar stones. Our present civilization has adopted a 365day solar calendar with a leap year occurring every fourth year (except century years not evenly divisible by 400). Aztec 1.gif.jpeg Aztec calendar stone

Early Clocks

Not until somewhat recently (that is, in terms of human history) did people find a need for knowing the time of day. As best we know, 5000 to 6000 years ago great civilizations in the Middle East and North Africa began to make clocks to augment their calendars. With their attendant bureaucracies, formal religions, and other burgeoning societal activities, these cultures apparently found a need to organize their time more efficiently.

Shadow 1.gif.jpeg Egyptian Shadow Clock

Sun Clocks

The Sumerian culture was lost without passing on its knowledge, but the Egyptians were apparently the next to formally divide their day into parts something like our hours. Obelisks (slender, tapering, four-sided monuments) were built as early as 3500 BCE. Their moving shadows formed a kind of sundial, enabling people to partition the day into morning and afternoon. Obelisks also showed the year's longest and shortest days when the shadow at noon was the shortest or longest of the year. Later, additional markers around the base of the monument would indicate further subdivisions of time.

Another Egyptian shadow clock or sundial, possibly the first portable timepiece, came into use around 1500 BCE. This device divided a sunlit day into 10 parts plus two "twilight hours" in the morning and evening. When the long stem with 5 variably spaced marks was oriented east and west in the morning, an elevated crossbar on the east end cast a moving shadow over the marks. At noon, the device was turned in the opposite direction to measure the afternoon "hours."

The merkhet, the oldest known astronomical tool, was an Egyptian development of around 600 BCE. A pair of merkhets was used to establish a north-south line (or meridian) by aligning them with the Pole Star. They could then be used to mark off nighttime hours by determining when certain other stars crossed the meridian.

In the quest for better year-round accuracy, sundials evolved from flat horizontal or vertical plates to more elaborate forms. One version was the hemispherical dial, a bowl-shaped depression cut into a block of stone, carrying a central vertical gnomon (pointer) and scribed with sets of hour lines for different seasons. The hemicycle, said to have been invented about 300 BCE, removed the useless half of the hemisphere to give an appearance of a half-bowl cut into the edge of a squared block. By 30 BCE, Vitruvius could describe 13 different sundial styles in use in Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy.

Elements of a Clock

Before we continue describing the evolution of ways to mark the passage of time, perhaps we should broadly define what constitutes a clock. All clocks must have two basic components:

  • a regular, constant or repetitive process or action to mark off equal increments of time. Early examples of such processes included the movement of the sun across the sky, candles marked in increments, oil lamps with marked reservoirs, sand glasses (hourglasses), and in the Orient, knotted cords and small stone or metal mazes filled with incense that would burn at a certain pace. Modern clocks use a balance wheel, pendulum, vibrating crystal, or electromagnetic waves associated with the internal workings of atoms as their regulators.
  • a means of keeping track of the increments of time and displaying the result. Our ways of keeping track of the passage of time include the position of clock hands and digital time displays.

The history of timekeeping is the story of the search for ever more consistent actions or processes to regulate the rate of a clock.

Man water 1.gif.jpeg Early water clock

Water Clocks

Water clocks were among the earliest timekeepers that didn't depend on the observation of celestial bodies. One of the oldest was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I, buried around 1500 BCE. Later named clepsydras ("water thieves") by the Greeks, who began using them about 325 BCE, these were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. Other clepsydras were cylindrical or bowl-shaped containers designed to slowly fill with water coming in at a constant rate. Markings on the inside surfaces measured the passage of "hours" as the water level reached them. These clocks were used to determine hours at night, but may have been used in daylight as well. Another version consisted of a metal bowl with a hole in the bottom; when placed in a container of water the bowl would fill and sink in a certain time. These were still in use in North Africa in the 20th century.
Water 1.gif.jpeg Su Sung water clock tower

More elaborate and impressive mechanized water clocks were developed between 100 BCE and 500 CE by Greek and Roman horologists and astronomers. The added complexity was aimed at making the flow more constant by regulating the pressure, and at providing fancier displays of the passage of time. Some water clocks rang bells and gongs; others opened doors and windows to show little figures of people, or moved pointers, dials, and astrological models of the universe.

A Macedonian astronomer, Andronikos, supervised the construction of his Horologion, known today as the Tower of the Winds, in the Athens marketplace in the first half of the first century BCE. This octagonal structure showed scholars and shoppers both sundials and mechanical hour indicators. It featured a 24 hour mechanized clepsydra and indicators for the eight winds from which the tower got its name, and it displayed the seasons of the year and astrological dates and periods. The Romans also developed mechanized clepsydras, though their complexity accomplished little improvement over simpler methods for determining the passage of time.

In the Far East, mechanized astronomical/astrological clock making developed from 200 to 1300 CE. Third-century Chinese clepsydras drove various mechanisms that illustrated astronomical phenomena. One of the most elaborate clock towers was built by Su Sung and his associates in 1088 CE. Su Sung's mechanism incorporated a water-driven escapement invented about 725 CE. The Su Sung clock tower, over 30 feet tall, possessed a bronze power-driven armillary sphere for observations, an automatically rotating celestial globe, and five front panels with doors that permitted the viewing of changing manikins which rang bells or gongs, and held tablets indicating the hour or other special times of the day.

Since the rate of flow of water is very difficult to control accurately, a clock based on that flow could never achieve excellent accuracy. People were naturally led to other approaches.

A Revolution in Timekeeping

Modern 1.gif.jpeg Montage of modern timepieces In Europe during most of the Middle Ages (roughly 500CE to 1500CE), technological advancement virtually ceased. Sundial styles evolved, but didn't move far from ancient Egyptian principles.

During these times, simple sundials placed above doorways were used to identify midday and four "tides" (important times or periods) of the sunlit day. By the 10th century, several types of pocket sundials were used. One English model even compensated for seasonal changes of the Sun's altitude.

Then, in the first half of the 14th century, large mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of several large Italian cities. We have no evidence or record of the working models preceding these public clocks, which were weight-driven and regulated by a verge-and-foliot escapement. Variations of the verge-and-foliot mechanism reigned for more than 300years, but all had the same basic problem: the period of oscillation of the escapement depended heavily on the amount of driving force and the amount of friction in the drive. Like water flow, the rate was difficult to regulate.

Another advance was the invention of spring-powered clocks between 1500 and 1510 by Peter Henlein of Nuremberg. Replacing the heavy drive weights permitted smaller (and portable) clocks and watches. Although they ran slower as the mainspring unwound, they were popular among wealthy individuals due to their small size and the fact that they could be put on a shelf or table instead of hanging on the wall or being housed in tall cases. These advances in design were precursors to truly accurate timekeeping.

Accurate Mechanical Clocks

In 1656, Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, made the first pendulum clock, regulated by a mechanism with a "natural" period of oscillation. (Galileo Galilei is credited with inventing the pendulum-clock concept, and he studied the motion of the pendulum as early as 1582. He even sketched out a design for a pendulum clock, but he never actually constructed one before his death in 1642.) Huygens' early pendulum clock had an error of less than 1minute a day, the first time such accuracy had been achieved. His later refinements reduced his clock's error to less than 10seconds a day.

Around 1675, Huygens developed the balance wheel and spring assembly, still found in some of today's wristwatches. This improvement allowed portable 17th century watches to keep time to 10minutes a day. And in London in 1671, William Clement began building clocks with the new "anchor" or "recoil" escapement, a substantial improvement over the verge because it interferes less with the motion of the pendulum.

In 1721, George Graham improved the pendulum clock's accuracy to 1second per day by compensating for changes in the pendulum's length due to temperature variations. John Harrison, a carpenter and self-taught clock-maker, refined Graham's temperature compensation techniques and developed new methods for reducing friction. By 1761, he had built a marine chronometer with a spring and balance wheel escapement that won the British government's 1714 prize (worth more than $10,000,000 in today's currency) for a means of determining longitude to within one-half degree after a voyage to the West Indies. It kept time on board a rolling ship to about one-fifth of a second a day, nearly as well as a pendulum clock could do on land, and 10times better than required to win the prize.

Over the next century, refinements led in 1889 to Siegmund Riefler's clock with a nearly free pendulum, which attained an accuracy of a hundredth of a second a day and became the standard in many astronomical observatories. A true free-pendulum principle was introduced by R.J.Rudd about 1898, stimulating development of several free-pendulum clocks. One of the most famous, the W.H.Shortt clock, was demonstrated in 1921. The Shortt clock almost immediately replaced Riefler's clock as a supreme timekeeper in many observatories. This clock contained two pendulums, one a slave and the other a master. The slave pendulum gave the master pendulum the gentle pushes needed to maintain its motion, and also drove the clock's hands. This allowed the master pendulum to remain free from mechanical tasks that would disturb its regularity.

Quartz Clocks

The performance of the Shortt clock was overtaken as quartz crystal oscillators and clocks, developed in the 1920s and onward, eventually improved timekeeping performance far beyond that achieved using pendulum and balance-wheel escapements.

Quartz clock operation is based on the piezoelectric property of quartz crystals. If you apply an electric field to the crystal, it changes its shape, and if you squeeze it or bend it, it generates an electric field. When put in a suitable electronic circuit, this interaction between mechanical stress and electric field causes the crystal to vibrate and generate an electric signal of relatively constant frequency that can be used to operate an electronic clock display.

Quartz crystal clocks were better because they had no gears or escapements to disturb their regular frequency. Even so, they still relied on a mechanical vibration whose frequency depended critically on the crystal's size, shape and temperature. Thus, no two crystals can be exactly alike, with just the same frequency. Such quartz clocks and watches continue to dominate the market in numbers because their performance is excellent for their price. But the timekeeping performance of quartz clocks has been substantially surpassed by atomic clocks.

The "Atomic Age" of Time Standards

Scientists had long realized that atoms (and molecules) have resonances; each chemical element and compound absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation at its own characteristic frequencies. These resonances are inherently stable over time and space. An atom of hydrogen or cesium here today is (so far as we know) exactly like one a million years ago or in another galaxy. Thus atoms constitute a potential "pendulum" with a reproducible rate that can form the basis for more accurate clocks.

The development of radar and extremely high frequency radio communications in the 1930s and 1940s made possible the generation of the kind of electromagnetic waves (microwaves) needed to interact with atoms. Research aimed at developing an atomic clock focused first on microwave resonances in the ammonia molecule. In 1949, NIST built the first atomic clock, which was based on ammonia. However, its performance wasn't much better than the existing standards, and attention shifted almost immediately to more promising atomic-beam devices based on cesium.

Atomic 1.gif.jpeg Laboratory cesium frequency standard

The first practical cesium atomic frequency standard was built at the National Physical Laboratory in England in 1955, and in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO), the frequency of the cesium reference was established or measured relative to astronomical time. While NIST was the first to start working on a cesium standard, it wasn't until several years later that NIST completed its first cesium atomic beam device, and soon after a second NIST unit was built for comparison testing. By 1960, cesium standards had been refined enough to be incorporated into the official timekeeping system of NIST. Standards of this sort were also developed at a number of other national standards laboratories, leading to wide acceptance of this new timekeeping technology.

The cesium atom's natural frequency was formally recognized as the new international unit of time in 1967: the second was defined as exactly 9,192,631,770 oscillations or cycles of the cesium atom's resonant frequency, replacing the old second that was defined in terms of the Earth's motions. The second quickly became the physical quantity most accurately measured by scientists. As of January, 2002, NIST's latest primary cesium standard was capable of keeping time to about 30 billionths of a second per year. Called NIST-F1, it is the 8th of a series of cesium clocks built by NIST and NIST's first to operate on the "fountain" principle.

Other kinds of atomic clocks have also been developed for various applications; those based on hydrogen offer exceptional stability, for example, and those based on microwave absorption in rubidium vapor are more compact, lower in cost, and require less power.

Much of modern life has come to depend on precise time. The day is long past when we could get by with a timepiece accurate to the nearest quarter-hour. Transportation, communication, financial transactions, manufacturing, electric power and many other technologies have become dependent on accurate clocks. Scientific research and the demands of modern technology continue to drive our search for ever more accurate clocks. The next generation of time standards is presently under development at NIST, USNO, in France, in Germany, and other laboratories around the world.

As we continue our "Walk Through Time," we will see how agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Naval Observatory, and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris assist the world in maintaining a single, uniform time system.

World Time Scales

In the 1840s a railway standard time for all of England, Scotland, and Wales evolved, replacing several "local time" systems. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich began transmitting time telegraphically in 1852 and by 1855 most of Britain used Greenwich time. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) subsequently evolved as an important and well-recognized time reference for the world.

In 1830, the U.S. Navy established a depot, later to become the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO), with the initial responsibility to serve as a storage site for marine chronometers and other navigation instruments and to "rate" (calibrate) the chronometers to assure accuracy for their use in celestial navigation. For accurate "rating," the depot had to make regular astronomical observations. It was not until December of 1854 that the Secretary of the Navy officially designated this growing institution as the "United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office." Through all of the ensuing years, the USNO has retained timekeeping as one of its key functions.

With the advent of highly accurate atomic clocks, scientists and technologists recognized the inadequacy of timekeeping based on the motion of the Earth, which fluctuates in rate by a few thousandths of a second a day. The redefinition of the second in 1967 had provided an excellent reference for more accurate measurement of time intervals, but attempts to couple GMT (based on the Earth's motion) and this new definition proved to be highly unsatisfactory. A compromise time scale was eventually devised, and on January1, 1972, the new Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) became effective internationally.

UTC runs at the rate of the atomic clocks, but when the difference between this atomic time and one based on the Earth approaches one second, a one second adjustment (a "leap second") is made in UTC. NIST's clock systems and other atomic clocks located at the USNO and in more than 25other countries now contribute data to the international UTC scale coordinated in Paris by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). As atomic timekeeping has grown in importance, the world's standards laboratories have become more involved with the process, and in the United States today, NIST and USNO cooperate to provide official U.S. time for the nation. You can see a clock synchronized to the official U.S. government time provided by NIST and USNO at http://www.time.gov.

World 1.gif.jpeg Twelve of the world's time zones

The World's Time Zones

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a variety of meridians were used for longitudinal reference by various countries. For a number of reasons, the Greenwich meridian was the most popular of these. At least one factor in this popularity was the reputation for reliability and correctness of the Greenwich Observatory's publications of navigational data. It became clear that shipping would benefit substantially from the establishment of a single "prime" meridian, and the subject was finally resolved in 1884 at a conference held in Washington, where the meridian passing through Greenwich was adopted as the initial or prime meridian for longitude and timekeeping. Given a 24hour day and 360degrees of longitude around the earth, it is obvious that the world's 24time zones have to be 15degrees wide, on average. The individual zone boundaries are not straight, however, because they have been adjusted for the convenience and desires of local populations. Interestingly, the standard timekeeping system related to this arrangement of time zones was made official in the United States by an Act of Congress in March 1918, some 34years following the agreement reached at the international conference. In an earlier decision prompted by their own interests and by pressures for a standard timekeeping system from the scientific community — meteorologists, geophysicists and astronomers — the U.S. railroad industry anticipated the international accord when they implemented a "Standard Railway Time System" on November18, 1883. This Standard Railway Time, adopted by most cities, was the subject of much local controversy for nearly a decade following its inception.

NIST Time and Frequency Services

Since 1923, NIST radio station WWV has provided round-the-clock shortwave broadcasts of time and frequency signals. WWV's audio signal is also offered by telephone: dial (303) 499-7111 (not toll-free). A sister station, WWVH, was established in 1948 in Hawaii, and its signal can be heard by dialing (808) 335-4363 in Hawaii.

Wwvh2 1.jpg WWVH radio station in Hawaii Broadcast frequencies are 2.5MHz (megahertz), 5MHz, 10MHz, and 15MHz for both stations, plus 20MHz on WWV. The signal includes UTC time in both voice and coded form; standard carrier frequencies, time intervals and audio tones; information about Atlantic or Pacific storms; geophysical alert data related to radio propagation conditions; and other public service announcements. Accuracies of one millisecond (one thousandth of a second) can be obtained from these broadcasts if one corrects for the distance from the stations (near Ft. Collins, Colorado, and Kauai, Hawaii) to the receiver. The telephone services provide time signals accurate to 30milliseconds or better, which is the maximum delay in cross-country telephone lines.

In 1956, low-frequency station WWVB, which offers greater accuracy than WWV or WWVH, began broadcasting at 60kilohertz. The broadcast power for WWVB was increased in 1999 from about 10 kilowatts to 50 kilowatts, providing much improved signal strength and coverage to most of the North American continent. This has stimulated commercial development of a wide range of inexpensive radio-controlled clocks and watches for general consumer use.

Iss300 1.jpg International Space Station satellite Time signals are an important byproduct of the Global Positioning System (GPS), and indeed this has become the premier satellite source for time signals. The time scale operated by the USNO serves as reference for GPS, but it is important to note that the time scales of NIST and USNO are highly coordinated (that is, synchronized to well within 100 nanoseconds, or 100billionths of a second). Thus, signals provided by either NIST or USNO can be considered as traceable to both institutions. The agreements and coordination of time between these two institutions are important to the country, since they simplify the process of achieving legal traceability when regulations require it.

Official U.S. Government time, as provided by NIST and USNO, is available on the Internet at http://www.time.gov. NIST also offers an Internet Time Service (ITS) and an Automated Computer Time Service (ACTS) that allow setting of computer and other clocks through the Internet or over standard commercial telephone lines. Free software for using these services on several types of popular computers can be downloaded there. Information about these services can be found on the Time and Frequency Division Web site.

More information about NIST time and frequency standards and research can be obtained by contacting:

Time and Frequency Division
NIST – MC 847.00
325 Broadway
Boulder CO 80305-3328
(303) 497-3276


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  • Most NIST Special Publications are available from the Superintendent, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, and in Federal Depository Libraries.
This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the National Institute of Standards and Technology should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.


Technology, N. (2012). A Walk Through Time. Retrieved from http://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/A_Walk_Through_Time