A Brief History of Time
June 3, 2006 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Aside from the ancient Mesopotamian system of hours, seconds, and minutes we use, how else have cultures divided the day? Are any of these alternative systems still in active use?
posted by BackwardsCity to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: They still use hours, minutes & seconds, but Ethiopians have an idiosyncratic clock: being very close to the equator, the sun rises every day of the year at close to 6am & sets at roughly 6pm.

What they do, then, is rotate the clock 90 degrees, so that sunrise (6am) is 00:00 for them, and sunset is 12:00. The night takes up the hours from 12:00 to 24:00. I am quite fond of this simple division into 12 daylight hours & 12 night hours.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:30 PM on June 3, 2006

Check out the somewhat unusual system of Metric Time. You can read a good description of it if you'd like. Several nations have tried to convert, but I don't know of anyone who actually uses it.
posted by zachlipton at 5:42 PM on June 3, 2006

This is more marketing than cultural, but Swatch made up its own division of the day, the ".beat," but fewer people probably use that than metric time. Wikipedia has some info.

Wikipedia also has a category "units of time," but it doesn't seem to have anything promising. (Most of the entries that may look unfamiliar, like the indict, are for multiple years.)
posted by danb at 5:48 PM on June 3, 2006

Wow. Never mind. I tried following those links and most of them are now 404 or go to domain squatter pages. That site must be really out of date.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:09 PM on June 3, 2006

There's Decimal time.

Basically though, the Mesopotamians got that base-12 thing going for the hours of the day and months of the year, and that system "infected" everywhere from the Mideast and westward. Everyone after that either chose 12 months per year or lunar months of 28 days. The Chinese chose decimal timekeeping and lunar month datekeeping.

But time of day really wasn't that important when no one owned watches, few people owned clocks, and you couldn't contact or have any reason to synchronize with people who were out of yelling range.
posted by jellicle at 6:11 PM on June 3, 2006

I've heard that the Soviets messed with the clock around the same time they were experimenting with five- and six-day weeks. I can't find any details though.
posted by smackfu at 7:02 PM on June 3, 2006

Hey smackfu, I found the following here:
The "Eternal Calendar" went into effect on October 6 (1923). . . , giving five days to the weeks and six weeks to the months, so that there were 12 months of 30 days, plus five holidays with national names instead of weekday names.[note] The chief objective of the "Eternal Calendar" was to increase production, and special color cards were distributed to the workers. Rest-days became staggered. It was not realized at the time that such an arrangement would cause real hardship to family life. After several years of trial, in 1931, the five-day week and staggered rest-days were replaced by another system.

This new plan provided for a 12-month year with the same holidays as before and the same extra day for leap years, but a new week of six days was introduced wherein the rest-day came regularly on the 6th, 12th, 18th, 24th and 30th of the month, in addition to the five national holidays.

Not in active use, but pretty interesting.
posted by codswallop at 7:12 PM on June 3, 2006

When I was in high school I thought I had invented metric time, linked above.

I've also wondered why we don't use thirteen months that more closely mirror actual lunar months in length.
posted by lampoil at 7:52 PM on June 3, 2006

Best answer: The ancient Mayans used a tredecimal system (base-13) made up of 20 named days and 13 days per cycle for a 260-day year. Most mesoamerican civilizations used a variation on the 260-day "year".
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:55 PM on June 3, 2006

Best answer: The Japanese divided the day into twelve two-hour periods, each named after an animal from the Chinese zodiac.
posted by MrBadExample at 11:18 PM on June 3, 2006

The book The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin has a whole section about the history of the idea of time and its measurement. Also, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman has some pretty interesting speculation about how time might work if it didn't flow as it does.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:23 PM on June 3, 2006

Worth noting that the virtue of the system we're used to is the way it divides up into whole numbers.

60 divides into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12 15, 20 and 30 in whole numbers. 12 divides by 2, 3, 4 and 6. If you're going to divide the day up differently, maybe now we're all used to decimals it wouldn't be a big deal, but you can see how it worked out for people who liked round numbers in their maths.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:28 AM on June 4, 2006

Best answer: Thai six hour clock.
posted by the cuban at 4:10 AM on June 4, 2006

Is Swatch still trying to punt their 'Internet Time'?
posted by PenDevil at 5:35 AM on June 4, 2006

posted by languagehat at 6:42 AM on June 4, 2006

Revolutionary France had its own flavor of decimal time, with 20-hour days and 10-day weeks.

Some years ago, Seiko came out with a decimal-time watch.

Science fiction is a place you can look for alternative timekeeping, unsurprisingly. If you've ever seen Metropolis, you may recall seeing 10-hour clocks on the walls. In Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky, (where much of the action is in space, and the concept of a day is irrelevant) all time was measured as decimal groupings of seconds—kiloseconds, megaseconds, etc.

Obviously none of these attempts at decimal time have taken root. This is a W.A.G, but it may be because 60 is divisible into so many handy fractions (halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths), and 10 is not.
posted by adamrice at 7:28 AM on June 4, 2006

Best answer: Some monastic orders still use the names from the Roman hours (but conform to our standard clock). The Roman system was interesting because the length of the hours varied depending on the season to deal with the varying amount of sunshine.
posted by tommasz at 8:26 AM on June 4, 2006

Best answer: The Roman system was interesting because the length of the hours varied depending on the season to deal with the varying amount of sunshine.

Not only Roman; this was standard pre-modern practice. It was still used in the Ottoman Empire into the late 19th century, and perhaps into the early 20th—I'm not sure.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on June 4, 2006

I'd just like to point out that while Civil_Disobedient points out the Mayan calendar, its not clear that they had any division of the day (they may have...we just dont know) into smaller units.

My guess is not since the day was a fundamental unit and there were no natural cycles to divide the day. Also C_D describes the religious calendar. The Mayan civil calendar was indeed 365 days. And these two calendars were just two of many calendars used for different purposes. The Mayan idea of time was not just of nested cycles but of overlapping cycles, with major events marked at the points at which these temporal "gears" clanked together in unison.
posted by vacapinta at 8:53 AM on June 4, 2006

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