top of page

The Value of Timekeeping: A Reappraisal of Past and Current Meaning

Dalle AI

Nine billionths of a second. A unit of measurement so accurate that, by comparison, a wristwatch becomes a blunt instrument for telling time. An archaic tool for which the price has little to do with the specification of its movement but instead the values of the current day; a continued appreciation for the craftsmanship that has brought time to each and every person, enclosed in the steel casing of a watch. Seemingly disregarding the imperfections of the automatic and quartz movements, through ignorance of the cutting edge – where optical clocks measure time in the frequencies of ultraviolet light, as opposed to the swings of a pendulum.

06:00 - Time as a shadow

Nevertheless, in understanding the value one is to attribute to timekeeping it is necessary to rewind the clock to 3500 BCE when obelisks and stone rods cast their shadows, denoting the passage of time. It was by tracking celestial bodies that one could divide the day into smaller units, placing each movement at a point beyond dawn and dusk. Over the course of the next 2000 years, the Egyptians brought further refinements through the creation of the sundial, for once establishing the components of a modern clock. First, the presence of a constant and repetitive action, recognized to be the movement of the sun, such that increments of time can be denoted; and second, a means to record and display said increments. Thus, for the Egyptians, the sundial enabled the scheduling of trade and coordination of communal activity, but simultaneously set the beginning of a pursuit for refinement – a search for consistency and regulation in timekeeping.


07:00 - Darkest hours

Naturally, the question of how one is to track the passage of time when the sun is not visible ensues, requiring a reinvention of the clock independent of celestial objects. The answer to which the Egyptians found in the water clock: a series of connected vessels with slowly flowing liquid, measured along marked intervals. A similar principle underlines the use of sand, burnt essence and candles, whose continuous change in level could be tracked over time, although with lesser accuracy. Yet, the next great refinement in timekeeping found its basis in this very technology, in 750 CE, thousands of kilometers and hundreds of years away, by the hands of a Chinese monk and scholar. Thus, ushering in the age of mechanization through a wheel spun by flowing water, marking the intervals of time – each quarter and hour announced by drumbeats. Hence, the definition of horology, seen not only as the study of time, but the art of creating the instruments that measure it. The intricate assembly of gears, rods, and levers that over the next millennia brought a clock tower down to the size of a pocket watch.


08:00 - Ownership of a day

Similar to the involvement of the Chinese monk in the refinement of timekeeping, it was the Roman Catholic Church and the need for strict observance of prayer time that marked yet another tick in the accuracy of measurement. It was by combination of the knowledge, craftsmanship, and affluence of the monastic order that bell towers were introduced across Europe in the 1300s. A development relying on the use of gravity and weights, whose continuous movement was made periodic through an escapement, producing a ticking sound with each shifting of the gear. Where the completion of 60 ticks was announced through the striking of the clocca – Latin for bell – by which the surrounding population was made aware of the passage of time. Served as a means to itemize one’s day and track one’s duties, thus shifting ownership to each person within a community.

09:00 - Search for a second

Over the course of the next 300 years, the mechanical clock underwent many iterations, shifting both in dimensions and craftsmanship, a change driven by horologists’ need to appease the merchant class. The once public nature of the clock tower found itself transformed into an individual affair, reserved for the residences of the wealthy, adorned with verge escapement wall clocks. Timepieces offering greater precision throughout the entirety of the day, as opposed to the hourly strikes of a bell. Yet, those engaged in trade sought to measure even smaller intervals, commissioning timepieces with dial complications for both minutes and seconds, only to realize the imprecision of those very clocks. As, although the use of springs instead of weights had allowed for portability, it had come at the expense of tens of minutes lost or gained over the course of a day – revealing the unreliability of such timekeeping methods.


10:00 - Balance in motion

What came to follow was one final refinement to clock movements based on gravitational force, having once emerged through the flow of water, then mechanized by the inclusion of weights, and ultimately culminating in the swing of a pendulum. The beauty of an oscillating motion, continued and rhythmic in nature, endlessly shifting the gears of a clock over time. What Dutch astronomers discovered in the winter of 1656 was not only an answer to the grievances of the merchant class, enabling them to conduct commerce across seas, but a scientific marvel a hundred times more accurate than any horological instrument to date. With a loss or gain of less than a minute for each week of time, tracking any imprecisions became difficult for the ordinary person. A clock in line with the abilities of its owner, soon to accompany them at each and every second. Thus, by addition of a spring, the motion of a balance wheel could be regulated, allowing it to rotate repeatedly in each direction, all while sheltered in a small metal encasement – a pocket watch.

11:00 - Tempus populi

Portable, accurate, technologically advanced yet continually inaccessible, a tool reserved for the affluent. Watches remained a significant purchase for many, difficult to justify unless truly needed. Hence, it is only logical that the proliferation of said horological instruments coincided with the emergence of a new frontier – that of travel and military conquest. The expansion of railroads necessitated complete synchronization, such that collisions could be avoided, while simultaneously ensuring that trains run along a specific line of track at a predetermined time. Demand for watches further increased with the outbreak of the Civil War, due to a need for coordination by Union army forces, consequently leading to the start of mass production. Where Swiss craftsmen took months to create a single timepiece, factories in the United States would manufacture dozens in a day, removing all barriers of ownership by creating a tool for the masses. A final stroke of the watch hand denoting the pinnacle of individual timekeeping – the ability of each person to track the seconds, minutes, and hours of a day.


12:00 – A period after time

Regardless of the thought one gives to modern time measurement instruments, innovation over the last century has seemingly surpassed that of past millennia. As mechanical clocks and automatic watches are to be considered obsolete relics, upon comparison with the accuracy of the quartz movement. The use of a crystal excited through a constant electric current, in turn producing vibrations at a regular rate, to the point of losing a second of accuracy for every 30 years of time. A technology that has ultimately found its way to the timepieces of the modern age, yet remains overlooked by many. Ingenious in its means of measurement, it provides accuracy beyond what the ordinary person deems necessary, serving instead a higher purpose – that of scientific discovery. Thus, the evolution of atomic and optical clocks, meticulously designed instruments distinguished not for their portability or craftsmanship, but their contributions to technological innovation, shaping global positioning services and modern communications. Whether it be by measuring the frequencies of cesium atoms or those of ultraviolet light, said devices redefine what a timepiece truly is – with a precession of nine billionths of a second, they have succeeded in the race for regulation of time.



It is through such a historic recounting that one may come to appreciate the value of timekeeping. A search for continuity in movement, for which the increments are recorded to track the passage of time, driven by a need for refinement across both day and night. Ushering in an era of mechanization and establishing the importance of instrument creation within horology, while simultaneously directing the life of communities and allowing for personal ownership of one’s time. Yet, with advancement in craft comes a realization of imprecision, a clock running either ahead or behind, but always misaligned with the needs of the affluent. A problem finding its solution in the magnum opus of movements based on gravitational force, an oscillating pendulum bringing clock towers and verge escapements to the miniature case of a pocket watch – the most personal timekeeping instrument. Yet one that would have remained inaccessible to many, if not for historical circumstances culminating in the wristwatch known today. A horological device long superseded by the invention of atomic and optical clocks, that is to be valued not for its accuracy, but for its homage to the notion of timekeeping itself. A recognition of the ingenuity and millennia of innovation carried by an individual – one’s own attempt to record an incremental movement in time.

bottom of page