Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Just a matter of time

Here's a pretty conundrum.

The clock is the single most significant invention of all time, agreed?  In particular, the version which is round, has two hands and a calibrated dial (we'll leave sundial, water clocks, digital, atomic etc out of it for now, if that's OK by you).  Without it, we wouldn't have had accurate navigation, wage-based employment or Gucci.  But that's not important now.

What suddenly interested me, at  four-fifteen this morning, was the perfection of a time-measurement device which divides the day into two sets of twelve, then each of these into sixty, then allows a calibration of the dial that accomodates not only this fairly complicated set-up, but also presents it in at-a-glance chunks of  minutes (five or ten at a time) and hours (twelve - OK, twenty-four would be more logical, but much harder to read: the designers obviously thought of that).

Except they didn't.  Hours and minutes were invented by the Babylonians, and refined by subsequent civilisations (the hours were originally dependent on the times of sunrise and sunset, which made them variable in length, a defect which took quite a while to spot and correct) so the inventors of the dial clock were in effect stuck with an inherited set of rules for measuring time - which turned out to be exactly perfect.  (Try thinking up a better set, but not if you want to sleep.)

How often does a problem offer such a 'fit for purpose' solution?  Did those Babylonians think "oh yeah, also this'll work really well when they get round to inventing the clock face"?  Or was it just serendipity?  Or was it some kind of intelligent design?  You have to wonder.

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