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Measurement of Time

M.Y. ANAND, B.A. KAGALI* Department of Physics, Bangalore University, Bangalore 560056 *email:

ABSTRACT Time was historically measured using the periodic motions of the sun and stars. Various types of sun clocks were devised in Egypt, Greece and Europe. Different types of water clocks were assembled with ever greater accuracy. Only in the seventeenth century did the mechanical clock with pendulums and springs appeared. Accurate quartz clocks and atomic clocks were developed in the first half of the twentieth century. Now we have clocks that have better than microsecond accuracy. This article gives a brief account of all these topics.

Keywords: Sun clocks, Water clocks, Mechanical clocks, Quartz clocks, Atomic clocks, World Time, Indian Standard time

We all know intuitively what time is. It can be roughly equated with change or motions. From the very beginning man has been interested in understanding and measuring time. More recently, he has been looking for ways to limit the “damaging” effects of time and going backward in time! Celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars—have provided us a reference for measuring the passage of time. Ancient
Physics Education • January − March 2007

civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of these bodies through the sky to determine seasons, months, and years. We know little about the details of timekeeping in prehistoric eras, but we find that in every culture, some people were preoccupied with measuring and recording the passage of time. Ice-age hunters in Europe over 20,000 years ago scratched lines and gouged holes in sticks and bones, possibly counting the

In ancient India time was measured in terms of respirations. an elevated crossbar on the east end cast a moving Physics Education • January − March 2007 . Obelisks (slender. Based on this knowledge. Sumerians in the TigrisEuphrates valley in today's Iraq had a calendar that divided the year into 30 day months. The time required in pronouncing ten long syllables (Gurvakshara) was called a respiration. solstices and so on. but later the Egyptians realized that the “Dog Star” in Canis Major. Thirty minutes made one hour (muhurta) and 30 hours made one day. rose next to the sun every 365 days. which we call Sirius. Another Egyptian shadow clock or sundial. Obelisks also showed the year’s longest and shortest days when the shadow at noon was the shortest or longest of the year. 60 vinadis made one nadi and 60 nadis made one day. about when the annual inundation of the Nile began. possibly the first portable timepiece. When the long stem with 5 variably spaced marks was oriented east and west in the morning. came into use around 1500 BCE. Five thousand years ago. We have no written records of Stonehenge. Their moving shadows formed a kind of sundial. Peoples of various civilizations have been interested in determining time with ever greater accuracy as they progressed. enabling people to partition the day into morning and afternoon. This device divided a sunlit day into 10 parts plus two “twilight hours” in the morning and evening. such as lunar eclipses. and divided these periods into 30 parts. built over 4000 years ago in England. they devised a 365 day calendar that seems to have begun around 3100 BCE(Before the Common Era). Sun Clocks Egyptians were apparently the formally divided their day into parts something like our hours. Six respirations made up one vinadi( period of twenty four seconds). four-sided monuments) were built as early as 3500 BCE (see Figure. The earliest Egyptian calendar was based on the moon's cycles. additional markers around the base of the monument would indicate further subdivisions of time. Later. tapering. The Puranic version of the day was measured by taking 15 twinklings (nimesha) as equal to one bit (kashtha). but its alignments show its purposes apparently included the determination of seasonal or celestial events. 278 Figure 1. 30 bits making one minute (kala).1). divided the day into 12 periods.days between phases of the moon.

Later named clepsydras (“water thieves”) by the Greeks. A pair of merkhets was used to establish a north-south line (or meridian) by aligning them with the Pole Star. In the quest for better year-round accuracy. All clocks must have two basic components: 1) a regular. removed the useless half of the hemisphere to give an appearance of a halfbowl cut into the edge of a squared block. Modern clocks use a balance wheel. 2) a means of keeping track of the increments of time and displaying the result. The added complexity was aimed at making the flow more constant by regulating the pressure. buried around 1500 BCE. others opened doors and 279 . constant or repetitive process or action to mark off equal increments of time. sand glasses (hourglasses). we should broadly define what constitutes a clock. Water Clocks Water clocks were among the earliest timekeepers that didn't depend on the observation of celestial bodies. By 30 BCE. One version was the hemispherical dial. candles marked in increments. Other clepsydras were cylindrical or bowl-shaped containers designed to slowly fill with water coming in at a constant rate. The hemicycle. said to have been invented about 300 BCE. The history of timekeeping is the story of the search for ever more consistent actions or processes to regulate the rate of a clock. Asia Minor. More elaborate and impressive mechanized water clocks were developed between 100 BCE and 500 CE by Greek and Roman horologists and astronomers. who began using them about 325 BCE. the oldest known astronomical tool. These clocks were used to determine hours at night. and at providing fancier displays of the passage of time (see Figure 2). Another version consisted of a metal bowl with a hole in the bottom. Vitruvius could describe 13 different sundial styles in use in Greece. when placed in a container of water the bowl would fill and sink in a certain time.” The merkhet. They could then be used to mark off nighttime hours by determining when certain other stars crossed the meridian. was an Egyptian development of around 600 BCE. and in the Orient. Some water clocks rang bells and gongs. and Italy. Our ways of keeping track of the passage of time include the position of clock hands and digital time displays. carrying a central vertical gnomon (pointer) and scribed with sets of hour lines for different seasons. sundials evolved from flat horizontal or vertical plates to more elaborate forms.shadow over the marks. Elements of a Clock Before we consider the different ways employed to mark the passage of time. One of the oldest was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I. These were still in use in North Africa in the 20th century. pendulum. or electromagnetic waves Physics Education • January − March 2007 associated with the internal workings of atoms as their regulators. Early examples of such processes included the movement of the sun across the sky. the device was turned in the opposite direction to measure the afternoon “hours. a bowlshaped depression cut into a block of stone. these were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. knotted cords and small stone or metal mazes filled with incense that would burn at a certain pace. vibrating crystal. At noon. oil lamps with marked reservoirs. Markings on the inside surfaces measured the passage of “hours” as the water level reached them. but may have been used in daylight as well.

A Macedonian astronomer. a clock based on that flow could never achieve excellent accuracy. Figure 2. Since the rate of flow of water is very difficult to control accurately. One of the most elaborate clock towers was built by Su Sung and his associates in 1088 CE. or moved pointers. and it displayed the seasons of the year and astrological dates and periods. supervised the construction of his Horologion. Third-century Chinese clepsydras drove various mechanisms that illustrated astronomical phenomena. The Su Sung clock tower. and five front panels with doors that permitted the viewing of changing manikins which rang bells or gongs. the Mayans of Central America relied not only on the Sun and Moon. in the Athens marketplace in the first half of the first century BCE. Su Sung’s mechanism incorporated a water-driven 280 Before 2000 BCE. This octagonal structure showed scholars and shoppers both sundials and mechanical hour to show little figures of people. the Babylonians (in today’s Iraq) used a year of 12 alternating 29 day and 30 day lunar months. In contrast. giving a 354 day year. People were naturally led to other approaches. over 30 feet tall. In the Far East. Andronikos. though their complexity accomplished little improvement over simpler methods for determining the passage of time. but also the planet Venus. The Romans also developed mechanized clepsydras. and held tablets indicating the hour or other special times of the day (see Figure 3). escapement invented about 725 CE. Figure 3. mechanized astronomical/ astrological clock making developed from 200 to 1300 CE. known today as the Tower of the Winds. an automatically rotating celestial globe. This culture and its related predecessors spread across Central Physics Education • January − March 2007 . to establish 260 day and 365 day calendars. and astrological models of the universe. possessed a bronze power-driven armillary sphere for observations. dials. It featured a 24 hour mechanized clepsydra and indicators for the eight winds from which the tower got its name.

reaching their apex between 250 and 900 CE. Accurate Mechanical Clocks In 1656. they were popular among wealthy individuals due to their small size and the fact that they could be put on a shelf or table instead of hanging on the wall or being housed in tall cases. By the 10th century. Sundial styles evolved. Then. which were weight-driven and regulated by a verge-andfoliot escapement. the first time such accuracy had been achieved. regulated by a mechanism with a “natural” period of oscillation. We have Physics Education • January − March 2007 . Their calendars later became portions of the great Aztec calendar stones. Although they ran slower as the mainspring unwound. the rate was difficult to regulate. Our present civilization has adopted a 365 day solar calendar with a leap year occurring every fourth year (except century years not evenly divisible by 400). They left celestial-cycle records indicating their belief that the creation of the world occurred in 3114 BCE. Christian Huygens. Huygens' early pendulum clock had an error of less than 1 minute a day. Variations of the verge-andfoliot mechanism reigned for more than 300 years. This improvement allowed portable 17th century watches to keep time to 10 minutes a day. These advances in design were precursors to truly accurate timekeeping. Around 1675. but all had the same basic problem: the period of oscillation of the escapement depended heavily on the amount of driving force and the amount of friction in the drive. large mechanical clocks began to appear in the towers of several large Italian cities. several types of pocket sundials were used.America between 2600 BCE and 1500 CE. but he never actually constructed one before his death in 1642. Galileo Galilee is sometimes credited with inventing the pendulum-clock concept. His later refinements reduced his clock's error to less than 10 seconds a day. simple sundials placed above doorways were used to identify midday and four “tides” (important times or periods) of the sunlit day. He studied the motion of the pendulum as early as 1582 and even sketched out a design for a pendulum clock. Replacing the heavy drive weights permitted smaller (and portable) clocks and watches. in the first half of the 14th century. technological advancement virtually ceased. still found in some of today's wristwatches. a Dutch mathematician and physicist. but didn't move far from ancient Egyptian principles. One English model even compensated for seasonal changes of the Sun's altitude. made the first pendulum clock. no evidence or record of the working models preceding these public clocks. And 281 Figure 4. Like water flow. During these times. Time-keeping in the Middle Ages In Europe during most of the Middle Ages (roughly 500 CE to 1500 CE). Figure 4 shows a typical horizontal sundial. Huygens developed the balance wheel and spring assembly. Another advance was the invention of spring-powered clocks between 1500 and 1510 by Peter Henlein of Nuremberg.

Rudd about 1898.J. An atom of hydrogen or cesium here today is (so far as we know) exactly like one a million years ago or in another galaxy. George Graham improved the pendulum clock's accuracy to 1 second per day by compensating for changes in the pendulum's length due to temperature variations. Shortt clock. which attained an accuracy of a hundredth of a second a day and became the standard in many astronomical observatories. Quartz crystal clocks were better because they had no gears or escapements to disturb their regular frequency. was demonstrated in 1921. a substantial improvement over the verge because it interferes less with the motion of the pendulum. and also drove the clock's hands. nearly as well as a pendulum clock could do on land. John Harrison. If you apply an electric field to the crystal. no two crystals can be exactly alike. This clock contained two pendulums. it generates an electric field. stimulating development of several free-pendulum clocks. This allowed the master pendulum to remain free from mechanical tasks that would disturb its regularity. In 1721. each chemical element and compound absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation at its own characteristic frequencies. he had built a marine chronometer with a spring and balance wheel escapement that won the British government’s 1714 prize for a means of determining longitude to within one-half degree after a voyage to the West Indies. they still relied on a mechanical vibration whose frequency depended critically on the crystal’s size.H. a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker. Such quartz clocks and watches continue to dominate the market in numbers because their performance is excellent for their price. this interaction between mechanical stress and electric field causes the crystal to vibrate and generate an electric signal of relatively constant frequency that can be used to operate an electronic clock display. Quartz Clocks The performance of the Shortt clock was overtaken as quartz crystal oscillators and clocks. the W. and 10 times better than required to win the prize. shape and temperature. When put in a suitable electronic circuit. The Shortt clock almost immediately replaced Riefler’s clock as a supreme timekeeper in many observatories. and if you squeeze it or bend it. Even so. Over the next century. A true free-pendulum principle was introduced by R. One of the most famous. eventually improved timekeeping performance far beyond that achieved using pendulum and balance-wheel London in 1671. But the timekeeping performance of quartz clocks has been substantially surpassed by atomic clocks. with just the same frequency. Quartz clock operation is based on the piezoelectric property of quartz crystals. By 1761. refinements led in 1889 to Siegmund Riefler’s clock with a nearly free pendulum. William Clement began building clocks with the new “anchor” or “recoil” escapement. It kept time on board a rolling ship to about onefifth of a second a day. developed in the 1920s and onward. The slave pendulum gave the master pendulum the gentle pushes needed to maintain its motion. one a slave and the other a master. Thus. The Atomic Clocks Scientists had long realized that atoms (and molecules) have resonances. it changes its shape. Thus atoms constitute a potential “pendulum” with a Physics Education • January − March 2007 282 . refined Graham’s temperature compensation techniques and developed new methods for reducing friction. These resonances are inherently stable over time and space.

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) built the first atomic clock. cesium standards had been refined enough to be incorporated into the official timekeeping system of NIST. and in collaboration with the U. replacing the old second that was defined in terms of the Earth’s motions. The second quickly became the physical quantity most accurately measured by scientists. Transportation. By 1960. Standards of this sort were also developed at a number of other national standards laboratories. Figure 5.192. those based on hydrogen offer exceptional stability. While National Institute of Standards and Technology was the first to start working on a cesium standard. Those based on Physics Education • January − March 2007 microwave absorption in rubidium vapor are more compact. Naval Observatory (USNO). leading to wide acceptance of this new timekeeping technology. The day is long past when we could get by with a timepiece accurate to the nearest quarter-hour. it wasn’t until several years later that NIST completed its first cesium atomic beam device (see Figure 5). which was based on ammonia.S. and attention shifted almost immediately to more promising atomic-beam devices based on cesium. Research aimed at developing an atomic clock focused first on microwave resonances in the ammonia molecule. Other kinds of atomic clocks have also been developed for various applications. the frequency of the cesium reference was established or measured relative to astronomical time. The cesium atom’s natural frequency was formally recognized as the new international unit of time in 1967: the second was defined as exactly 9. electric power and many other technologies have become dependent on accurate clocks. In 1949.631. financial transactions. However.770 oscillations or cycles of the cesium atom’s resonant frequency. Much of modern life has come to depend on precise time. The development of radar and extremely high frequency radio communications in the 1930s and 1940s made possible the generation of the kind of electromagnetic waves (microwaves) needed to interact with atoms. Scientific research and the demands of modern technology continue to 283 . manufacturing. lower in cost. its performance wasn't much better than the existing standards.Louis Essen.reproducible rate that can form the basis for more accurate clocks. The first practical cesium atomic frequency standard was built at the National Physical Laboratory in England in 1955 by Dr. communication. and require less power.

Time and Its Measurements. Massachusetts: Harvard University. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris assist the world in maintaining a single. Cleveland: World Publishing Company. a variety of meridians were used for longitudinal reference by various countries. 2000. 1950. ed. was adopted as the initial or prime meridian for longitude and timekeeping. Frequency. 1996.. because they have been adjusted for the convenience and desires of local populations. 1985. Man and Time. Cowan. The individual zone boundaries are not straight. J. It became clear that shipping would benefit substantially from the establishment of a single “prime” meridian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. the U. At least one factor in this popularity was the reputation for reliability and correctness of the Greenwich Observatory's publications of navigational data. our search for ever more accurate clocks. In the latter part of the nineteenth century. Standard World Time In the 1840s a railway standard time for all of England. replacing several "local time" systems. B. Gerhard. and Wales evolved. and the Atomic Clock. Splitting the Second. Bristol. Dohrn-Van Rossum.. Agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Calendars of Ancient Egypt. Scotland.. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) subsequently evolved as an important and well-recognized time reference for the world. Parker. Jones. 1958. For a number of reasons. Given a 24 hour day and 360 degrees of longitude around the earth. uniform time system. UK: Institute of Physics Publishing. R. where the meridian passing through Greenwich 284 Physics Education • January − March 2007 . New Delhi with the help of Cesium and Rubidium atomic clocks achieving microsecond accuracy. New York: Schocken Books. Naval Observatory. On Time. it is obvious that the world’s 24 time zones have to be 15 degrees wide. Indian Standard Time Indian standard time is maintained by National Physical Laboratory.S. the Greenwich meridian was the most popular of these. Landes.. Audoin. Cambridge.A. References Andrewes. however. and the subject was finally resolved in 1884 at a conference held in Washington. A Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. 2001. Shallis. The Measurement of Time: Time. University of Chicago. The Royal Observatory in Greenwich began transmitting time telegraphically in 1852 and by 1855 most of Britain used Greenwich time. Garden City. 1998. Figture 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. It also offers INSAT satellite based standard time and frequency service to users. Cambridge. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Michael. and Bernard Guinot. The Quest for Longitude. 1983. Claude. Harrison J. Priestley. Tony. on average..H. William J. Davis S. New York: Doubleday.