Illustration: Hanlin Chen


Our obsession with keeping time is fascinating. In fact, while reading this, you’ve lost a little piece of time you’ll never get back. Ever. Did you know our current timekeeping system is pretty sensual? In fact, it’s sexagesimal, meaning base 60, from the ancient Sumerians in 2000 BCE.

Join us as we journey through time-keeping time.

Sundials – 3500 BCE

The sundial started off in 3500 BCE as a stick in the ground. Not just any old stick, however, but a slender, tapering stick. I know, I know, it sounds amazing, and rightly so, because this stick had the ability to tell time. Requiring nothing more than the power of the sun (so efficient!), this stick’s shadow indicated the time of day. It must have dawned on someone that days and nights weren’t the same length year-round, because soon enough, a number of improvements were made to better this system, including different sets of hour lines for the different seasons.

So elusive is this invention that, to this day, its true form hasn’t been set in stone. Sundials range from from a stick in the ground to horizontal plates to even a bowl! Striking, if you ask me.

Water Clocks – 325 BCE

Let us now travel into old man Amenhotep I’s tomb, where the water clock was first found—one of the earliest timekeepers that did not depend on the solar system. As you can imagine, the water clock had quite the reputation back in 325 BCE.

It was essentially a drip clock: water dripped out of a vessel at a supposedly constant rate into another vessel to mark the hours elapsed. It seemed to work pretty well until people realized that a number of factors affected the water’s drip-rate.

All this said I think we should pat ourselves on the back. Even with our thirty-minute showers, I’m positive we’re not wasting as much water as the Greeks did. Maybe that’s why they called these clocks “water thieves.”

Pendulum Clocks – 1580s

The pendulum was first imagined by Galileo Galilei in the 1580s, who understood a central feature of the human condition: people are fascinated by objects continuously swinging back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. However, due to errors, a minute or so was lost per day using this clock, but as technology improved, this loss was sadly reduced to about ten seconds.

It’s a shame; a minute lost every day for a year would add up to more than six hours—that’s almost a whole day each year without school! However, if all the wall clocks in our school were pendulums, they would still ostensibly swing slower the moment we hope for the bell. Oh boy.

Pocket Watch – 1500s  

Nowadays, we find all sorts of junk in our pockets. Old bus transfers, chewed up gum (gross), losing raffle tickets, and whatever other “treasures” we choose to keep. Watches aren’t found tucked away in our dress-shirt pockets anymore, unless you’re the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. That is to say, you don’t really exist.

Dating back to the 1500s, pocket watches were all the rage as, for the first time, people could carry a timekeeping device around with them. Why it’s so exciting having a device constantly reminding you of your tardiness is beyond me, but back then it was a huge hit.

Before the 1750s, pocket watches were so inaccurate that in the span of one day, they would lose multiple hours. Perhaps that’s where the appeal of these watches lay: you could blame your inability to hustle on something that was supposedly “reliable.” It’s unfortunate we don’t carry these around today; we would be able to justify being forty-five minutes late to first period. (I swear the bus was late fifteen days in a row, Ms.Goldenberg!)

Equation Clock – 1650s

The Equation Clock was invented in the 1650s by Christiaan Huyghens in response to demands for a timepiece more accurate than pendulums and pocket watches. It’s also exactly how you’d imagine it to be. Complicated. Mathematical. Kind of excessive. And very much a reflection of those who inspired it—you know, the uptight ones that just can’t bear being 5 minutes off “true” time, whatever that is.

The clock operates based off of a whole set of theoretical values that pertain to astronomy. Things like the time difference between apparent and mean solar time, the hour angle of the actual sun, that other angle of the fictitious sun, something-something about universal time, and (oh god) trigonometry! And then there’s also longitude, and delta time, and Kepler’s equation, and… well, you get the idea. (Simply put, the equation clock calculates the position of the sun based on the time of the year.)

           After all this math nonsense, you’re probably thinking that this invention was a revelation that spearheaded the very existence of technology itself. But nope! Turns out, math just doesn’t cut it in the world of time. These clocks haven’t done much besides collect dust in museums.

Wristwatches – 1923

Astonishment. Bewilderment. Maybe even a tad bit of judgement. Expect those reactions if you’re caught dead wearing a watch these days. Ah, how we look at these devices as outdated. Ancient. Something “only ‘20s kids remember.”

In reality, the miniature, portable, wearable take on the wall clock has only existed since the last century. During WWI, wristwatches were developed for soldiers who complained that pocket watches were too much of a hassle to use in the midst of bombing the enemy.

By wearing wrist watches, the time wasted pulling out a clock from your pocket was saved, leading to increased survival, as well as a better fashion statement. Yes, fashion was supposedly just as important during the war as avoiding death. “Beauty is pain” just took on a whole new meaning.

Atomic Clocks – 1949

By far the most impressive sounding of the bunch, atomic clocks are also the most tiresome to explain (except perhaps the equation clock). Atomic and nuclear are also interchangeable in standard English, making atomic clocks sound a lot more badass and dangerous than they actually are.

If there were a monarchy of clocks, the atomic clock would be the king—they are accurate down to less than a second per day, which is no small feat.

Cesium oscillations are a very important part of this clock.  It operates on the fact that a second is the time it takes caesium to oscillate exactly 9 192 631 770 times. This is how the clock works: cesium atoms are passed through radio waves, which causes a change in their energy state, then something else happens with radio waves—and voila, a second!

(I’m sure your physics teacher will explain what happens if you’re really interested.)
And we’ve reached the end of the ride folks. How was your first trip back in time? Educational? The time of your life? If not any of these things, you’re probably thinking: how much time did I waste reading this? How many snaps could I have sent in that time? Did I just waste a billion cesium oscillations? Whatever your thoughts, there’s one thing that we all can agree on: though we’ve come a long way in becoming better timekeepers, our long, sleepless nights caused by self-destructive procrastination prove that we’re certainly no better at keeping time.