The Invention of Time

Ever since man first noticed the regular movement of the Sun and the stars, we have wondered about the passage of time. Prehistoric people first recorded the phases of the Moon some 30,000 years ago, and recording time has been a way by which humanity has observed the heavens and represented the progress of civilization.

As the sun moves across the sky, shadows change in direction and length, so a simple sundial can measure the length of a day. It was quickly noticed that the length of the day varies at different times of the year. The reasons for this difference were not discovered until after astronomers accepted the fact that the earth travels round the sun in an elliptic orbit, and that the earth's axis is tilted at about 26 degrees. This variation from a circular orbit leads to the Equation of Time which allows us to work out the difference between 'clock' time and 'sundial time'.


Another discovery was that sundials had to be specially made for different latitudes because the Sun's altitude in the sky decreases at higher latitudes, producing longer shadows than at lower latitudes. Today, artists and astronomers find many ways of creating modern sundials.
From about 700 BCE the Babylonians began to develop a mathematical theory of astronomy, but the equally divided 12-constellation zodiac appears later about 500 BCE to correspond to their year of 12 months of 30 days each. Their base 60 fraction system which we still use today (degrees / hours, minutes and seconds) was much easier to calculate with than the fractions used in Egypt or Greece, and remained the main calculation tool for astronomers until after the 16th century, when decimal notation began to take over.

The earliest archaeological evidence of Chinese calendars appears about 2,000 BCE. They show a 12 month year with the occasional occurrence of a 13th month. However, traditional Chinese records suggest the origin of a calendar of 366 days depending on the movements of the Sun and the Moon as early as 3,000 BCE. Over such a long period of observation, Chinese astronomers became aware that their calendar was not accurate, and by the second century CE it was recognised that the calendar became unreliable every 300 years. This problem is called Precession and was recorded by Chinese historians in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. In the fifth century CE the scholar Zu Chongzi created the first calendar which took precession into account, and the most comprehensive calendar was the Dayan Calendar compiled in the Tang Dynasty (616-907 CE) well ahead of any such development in Europe.
- Article by Leo Rogers 

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