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A History of Time
No, not that one...
Among the many feelings that don’t have words, we have…
Onism: The frustration of being stuck in just one body that inhabits only one place at a time.
No one’s quite sure who started keeping track of time, but they almost certainly did it at the behest of some monarch who wanted to know how long it took to boil an egg…or something else just as trivial. Tracking days and weeks, as well as subdividing years, has been around since ancient times, to regulate planting or calculate the correct feast day. But dividing the day into something finer than dark and light…that’s somewhat new. Sundials were around about 3500 BC, that could tell time with some accuracy.
Enouement: The bittersweetness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.
But subdividing the day with the night was one thing: knowing how long a night was, that was different. And was time any different if there was no sun to be seen? And how was the first sundial divided?
Measuring time independent of the sun…?
Then people built sandglasses (egg timers) and water clocks and measured candles so that they could divide night…but for what? The answer for many centuries was divine: so they could recite the right prayers at the right time. After several centuries, it was the prayers themselves that became the way to tell time. Monks started dividing the medieval canonical hour after the duty monk recited so many Rosaries. It was something, but not much. Who needed more?
Enter the navigators…
Columbus and his like were sailing around the world and really wanted to know where they were at any given…day. To do that, they needed timekeeping more accurate than a chanter of prayers. They knew about the reference lines the third century BC Greeks left them, but they didn’t seem consistent…and they knew more about latitude than longitude. Latitude—distance from an equatorial line on a sphere—is relatively easy using stars. So was born the almanac in its early form. But longitude—distance from a point along a sphere equal to the circumference—is a lot harder to measure without something fixed to measure from. Those same almanacs could say that Venus rose from that many degrees south on this day…but at what time? “Morning” isn’t very precise.
It took thousands of drowned sailors before they solved the problem…kind of.
Night navigation was especially perilous if you don’t know what your longitude is. Stars shift by the hour depending on position. Again, latitude is easy; longitude is not. But knowing how long you’ve been traveling from some fixed point—often a port—you can calculate your longitude. Dava Sobel wrote a brilliant book on John Harrison, who made the first practical nautical chronometers in the 18th Century. He used the same division of the day—12 hours—that Egyptian sundials used since 1500 BC. For unclear reasons, ancient Babylon divided the hour—they had one—into 60 parts. The Greeks divided the world and the circle into 360 parts…because…
The ancients used a base 12 for their time numbering because it takes 12 lunar cycles for Earth to orbit the Sun.
This was important for religious reasons, for reginal reasons, and for agriculture. And we still use it because…well, because.
Does history repeat itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that’s too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.
The Past Not Taken is an exploration of how we write history…or not…and of a young man looking back on the past that he had while considering the past he did not have.
Our consideration of taking one path and not the other is as close as we can get to time machines…as is taking up the issue of why we write history this way and not that way.
Why the Confederacy Failed 1
On 4 March:
1789: The US Constitution took effect. There followed a slew of inaugurations on the same day, all the way up to 1933 and FDR’s first inaugural.
1918: The Spanish Flu’s first identified patient reported for sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas, just outside Kansas City. Though disputed by scholars, he was traditionally Patient Zero for the 1918 Influenza epidemic—until recently—that may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths worldwide by 1922. A week later, Camp Riley, a few miles away, had their own entrant into that busy field…
And today is NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY. This odd, um, observance has been around since 2009, when someone said it was to be a thing. OK; whatever…