Keeping Track of Time

big benTime is something we are consciously or unconsciously aware of at all times. October is recognized as National Clock Month.  The history of timekeeping dates back to 1500 BC when the first known sundial was used in Egypt to divide the day into equal parts.  A variety of instruments – water clocks, astrolabes, candle clocks, sandglasses – were used to mark time until the first mechanical clock, a weight driven clock, was invented sometime around 1270 in Europe.  The inventor of the first mechanical clock and the exact time of invention are however a mystery.

After this, spring-driven clocks were created which allowed timekeeping to become more portable.  These clocks could be used in homes and eventually led to the development of the first watches in the late 15th century.  Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, devised the pendulum clock in 1656, the first instrument to measure seconds.  The first pendulum clock to be driven completely by battery power was used in 1906.

The first quartz clock took up most of a room and was invented in 1927 by W. A. Marrison and J.W. Horten.  Quartz clocks eventually became the most popular timekeeper and are used widely today showing up in calculators, computers, and watches.  A quartz clock can keep time accurately to about one second every ten years. 

In 1955, Britain’s National Physical Laboratory invented the cesium atomic clock, which redefined the measurement of a second to more precise terms.  Because all atoms of cesium-133 are identical, the amount of energy they radiate is identical, allowing for the most precise measurement of time to date. 

The accurate measurement of time is important worldwide in coordinating things such as transportation, communications, and electrical power distribution.  On a more personal level, keeping track of time keeps us from being late to work and social engagements. 

Benjamin Franklin said, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that the stuff life is made of.”

This quote is especially appropriate when you discover that Benjamin Franklin is also the one credited with creating Daylight Saving Time.  The last Sunday in October marks the end of Daylight Saving Time every year.  Or at least it used to.  For the first time this year, the United States will follow the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which changes the dates for Daylight Saving Time. This means DST now begins in March and ends the first Sunday in November across the USA.  However, the European Union will continue to use the last Sunday of October to signify the end of Daylight Saving Time.

The concept of Daylight Saving Time has always been controversial and is illustrated by the fact that even in the United States there are areas that do not observe DST.  They include Arizona, Hawaii, and the U.S territories of Guam, Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.  The Navajo Nation, although partially located in Arizona, does observe DST due to its large size and location in three states.

Approximately 70 countries worldwide practice Daylight Saving Time.  Japan, India, and China are the only major industrialized countries that do not utilize Daylight Saving Time.

To illustrate the effect of Daylight Saving Time, consider trains.  Trains cannot leave a station before their scheduled time.  When clocks are turned back at the end of DST in the fall, all Amtrak trains in the United States that are running at 2 a.m. must stop and wait on the tracks for one hour.  During the spring Daylight Saving Time change, trains become an hour behind schedule at 2 a.m. but they just keep going and try to make up the time as best they can. 

Will Rogers once said, “Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save.”

Additional resources for October:

  • Clockworks - Interactive display takes visitors through an invention timeline of various types of clocks.  Includes movies that illustrate the way different timepieces work.
  • Daylight Saving Time - Learn about the concept of Daylight Saving Time including its history and how it is currently observed across the world.
  • Halloween Resources - Learn about the origin of Halloween, find haunted houses, ideas for costumes and activities for kids.
  • MLB.com - Get current news, scores, and stats for the Major League Baseball playoffs.
  • NHL.com - Find team schedules, player statistics, real time scores and more for the National Hockey League regular season.