In the modern world we take for granted the availability of innumerable sources providing accurate measurements of time. Telling current time is so readily available that we have lost sight of the profound importance of knowing time, to the hour and minute. For most of human history accurately measuring time was irrelevant. There was no need for watches; clocks, clock radios or digital time reads on car dashboards.
Until the flowering of the industrial age in the second half of the 19th century most people worked in small plot agriculture. All over the world people scratched out a living farming and herding small plots and flocks. Very few people ventured more than several miles from their place of birth in their whole lifetimes. Time was told by the change of seasons and the planting and harvest cycles. Nothing else was needed to provide measurements of time.
The ancients used sundials in numerous forms for crude time measurement. Shade, rain, and cloudy days made the sundial unreliable. The Egyptians invented an advanced Water Clock. The device used a drip system that raised a float tied to a pointer. This system was relatively accurate in measuring hours, but not minutes.
The clock as we know it first appeared in Europe in the 14th century. The clock was made operable by the creation of the “verge escapement”. This gear engaged a set of teeth that powered an hour hand. There was no measurement of seconds or minutes. The hour hand was accurate within one to two hours each day. The inventor of this initial timepiece is unknown.
Something more precise was essential if technology was to advance. In 1657 a Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens was credited with inventing the first accurate time keeping device that included the credible measurement of time by the minute. This advance was crucial in many fields. Navigators required accurate time measurement to compute longitude. All scientific experimentation requires accurate measurement of time.
For the common man, working on a farm, or as a village cobbler, or baker, accurate measurement of time was still of little importance. The railroad, more than any other advancement, was responsible for the rapid introduction and implementation of a universally recognized schedule of times. This schedule required accurate devices to register local time.
Railroads needed to load and offload passengers and freight at pre-appointed times and places along their lengthy route systems. Travelers and shippers needed to accurately know when trains would arrive and depart in order to be ready to board passenger cars and load shipping cars with goods. Before the growth of railroads there was little necessity for the measurement of time in minutes. It was enough for almost any human to simply know that it was 3:00 PM, plus or minus any number of minutes. However, if the train was scheduled to arrive at 3:10 PM in Leeds, England, or Dodge City, Kansas, and depart at 3:35 PM, the public needed to be able to connect within that precise window of time if they were to be able to utilize the trains many services. This required the mass production of clocks and personal timepieces.
Today we are fully wired by time. Our lives are an endless series of activities attuned to specific times. Our Saturday tennis match, doctor appointments, restaurant reservations, conference calls and NFL games are occurrences that we participate in at specific times. We need to know time to the minute and our modern environment has time accurately on display virtually every where we look. We take this simplest of conveniences for granted.
The settling of the International Time Line at Greenwich, England (Greenwich Mean Time) enables to world to be divided into time zones. We know that different parts of the world are in one of 24 separate time zones and all commercial activity finds rhythm from this practical division of geography into these agreed time zones. The rubber plantation foreman in Nigeria knows exactly when the product manager will be available in Akron, Ohio because of this internationally employed system of measuring time. The modern world could not efficiently operate if the ancients had not begun the quest for accurately measuring the hours of each day.