The Time Ma­chine

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Aclock does two things: it ticks and it counts the ticks. The clep­sy­dra, or wa­ter clock, ticks to the steady drip of wa­ter, which, in more ad­vanced de­vices, drives a set of gears that nudges a pointer along a se­ries of num­bers or hash marks, thereby in­di­cat­ing time’s pas­sage.

The clep­sy­dra was in use at least 3,000 years ago, and Ro­man sen­a­tors used them to keep their col­leagues from talk­ing for too long. (Ac­cord­ing to Cicero, to “seek the clock” was to re­quest the floor and to “give the clock” was to yield it.) For most of his­tory, though, in most clocks, what ticked was Earth. As the planet ro­tates on its axis, the sun crosses the sky and casts a mov­ing shadow; cast on a sun­dial, the shadow in­di­cates where you are in the day.

The pen­du­lum clock, in­vented in 1656 by Chris­ti­aan Huy­gens, re­lies on grav­ity to swing a weight back and forth, which drives a pair of hands around the face of the clock. A tick is sim­ply an os­cil­la­tion, a steady beat; Earth’s turn­ing pro­vided the rhythm.

In prac­tice, what ticked was the day, the ro­ta­tional in­ter­val from one sun­rise to the next. Ev­ery­thing in be­tween — the hours and min­utes — was con­trived, a man-made way to break up the day into man­age­able units for us. Now, our days are gov­erned by sec­onds. They are the cur­rency of mod­ern life, the pen­nies of our time: ubiq­ui­tous and crit­i­cal in a pinch (like when you just man­age to make a train con­nec­tion).…

From “Why Time Flies: A Mostly Sci­en­tific In­ves­ti­ga­tion”

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