Hours, Minutes, Seconds

   This year Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is celebrating clocks, devices for measuring time.
   Whereas nature measures time in years (equinox to equinox) and in days (midday to midday), people are on their own when dividing up each day. There is nothing in nature that sets the length of hours, minutes or seconds.
   So who decided on 24 hours per day, 60 minutes per hour and 60 seconds per minute?
   The honour for the hours seems to belong to Egyptian astrologers living more than 4,000 years ago. Using complex star gazing, they decided that daylight should have 12 divisions and that the night should be divided into 3 or 4 "watches," corresponding to actual time periods when night sentinels stood guard. Maybe that's where we got the word "watch."
   To tell the time, Egyptians used sundials during daylight and water clocks day or night. A water clock was simply a container filled with water which was allowed to drip at a constant rate. Dropping water levels corresponded to elapsed hours. This primitive clock was very inaccurate but close enough for their purposes.

   The 60 minutes and seconds come from the Mesopotamians, also about 4,000 years ago. Whereas we count by 10s, doubtless because we have 10 fingers, they decided to count by 60s. This was nice for them because 60 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30! For people who did not have decimals, this system yielded lots of neat fraction possibilities: 1/30, 1/20, 1/15, 1/12, 1/10, 1/6, 1/4, 1/3, and 1/2. These fractions were very useful in dividing farmland and sacks of barley.

   As astronomy became more sophisticated, a precise system was invented, based on 12 constellations seen along the orbits of the planets, each one rising and setting at more or less equal intervals. This was the first 24-hour system, with 2 hours allotted to each constellation. It gave rise to the zodiac and all that astrological nonsense which is still very much alive today.
   The 24-hour system spread to the Mideast, to India, to Greece and Rome, and from there to us. Curiously, it was also developed in China about 500 BC. Before that, the Chinese had a kind of decimal system but then changed to the 12-hour daylight clock, perhaps due to contacts with the Mideast. Whereas the Middle Eastern love of the number 12 was probably related to the number of "moons" per year, in China it was supposed to have come from the observed 12-year orbit of Jupiter.

   Ancient Hebrews were not fond of astrology for theological reasons, but even they liked the number 12, noting that Jacob had 12 sons, giving rise to the twelve tribes, which probably was echoed in Jesus' 12 disciples.

   Nowadays, the “second” is still the ultimate standard for time measurement. According to Google, it is now defined as "9,192,631,770 cycles of the radiation that gets an atom of cesium-133 to vibrate between two energy states." Thus an ancient time measurement is enshrined in modern language.

   In more recent eras, the many ordinary and ornate clocks now residing at MHV have faithfully roused Mennonite farmers to get ready to do their milking and schoolchildren to find their boots for the morning walk to school. Now they are resting and waiting for your visit.

Calendar of Events

March 30 - Closed for Good Friday

April 19 – 7:00 PM, Auxiliary Film Night: Seven Points on Earth

April 26 – 7:00 PM, Volunteer Orientation

May 1 - Opening day for the Livery Barn Restaurant and the Outdoor Village

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.