Timekeeping instruments before electronic gadgets
I suppose that for so long as there have been human beings, we have been devising ways of keeping track of time. These days we seem to have gone far toward relying on electronic instruments to tell us the time. I like to remember that for long thousands of years people kept track of time without their electronic gadgets. As the history of humanity goes, electronics is a very new thing, hardly a hundred years out of the thousands and thousands of years that passed before the appearance of electronic instruments like radios, and before the widespread availability of electricity. Timekeeping is a very old thing; and to me there is fascination in thinking of ways people have counted time in the years gone by.
My own life began before the availability of electricity in our rural areas. Until I was 5 years old, we didn’t have electric lights, or electric appliances, or anything electric, unless you counted our battery-powered radio. Our old radio was our first electronic unit, if you allow that the old-fashioned vacuum tubes were electronic. That was well before the transistor age which made possible today’s miniaturization and sophistication of electronic units. Our clocks were all wind-up clocks, coilspring powered, except for the great grandfather clocks which some families had in their homes. The grandfather clocks were usually powered by weights on chains. Nearly all the time pieces that we were familiar with back then were of the tick-tock variety, and the ticking and tocking sounds came from the working of the mechanism which made the clock a clock.
As they ticked and tocked, the ticking-tocking mechanism was controlling and regulating the gears of the clock, measuring out the time and displaying the time on a dial face with “hands” which served as pointers to the hour and minute. Some of our old clocks were very ornate, with finely crafted cabinets and precisely engineered gear work. Many of the large clocks, both the great grandfather clocks and some of the large wall clocks, had a swinging pendulum which by its swinging movements controlled the rate of ticking and tocking, and maintained the accuracy of the clock’s timekeeping, all the while providing an interesting visual effect.
I’m trying to imagine the time before timepieces of any sort, when human beings would be thinking about the passing of time and measuring time by
certain means. I would suppose that as human beings acquired strong conscious rationality and memory, they would begin noticing certain regularities about the world they were living in, events with noticeably similar time frames. One of the most obvious would be the alternation of day and night, a time of light and a time of darkness, a regular pattern which continuously re-occurred. Another noticeable occurrence would be the regular passing of seasons, a season of greening and growth, a season of heat, a moderating season when grains matured, and the colder season of winter when much of the green growth disappears for a time, only to return as the cycle starts over again. Some observers of the sky would notice that the sun takes different paths across the sky during certain seasons. Then some astute observer would notice that as the sun passes overhead,
the shadows move and change in predictable and timed ways.
I’m supposing that the timing of periods of the day by measuring the shadows cast by the sun would have been the beginning of rather precise measurements of time in hours and minutes. Sundials, in various forms, are right fascinating to me. Today, of course, sundials are treated more as interesting art forms or sculptures than as functioning timekeepers, but they are fascinating nonetheless. Then, another fascinating invention from way back would be the hourglass. An hourglass involves running finegrained sand through a very small opening in a glass tube so that the sand drains from the top to the bottom of the hourglass in a certain amount of time. I would suppose that you could also form a crude timekeeper by fixing a container of water with a small hole so that the water drips slowly, emptying the container while “measuring” a period of time.
My first watch, about the time I was 10 years old, was a pocket watch, an Ingraham-Biltmore. It sold for $1. It was a rather cheap watch, and I had to reset its time every few days by listening to the time on the radio, but I was proud to have it. Back then, men’s clothes often were fashioned to accommodate a pocket watch. The bib of farmer’s blue overalls or carpenters’ and trainmen’s striped overalls were designed to hold a pocket watch attached to a chain or cord. Denim blue jeans usually had a watch pocket in conjunction with the right-hand front pocket. I notice that even though men today rarely carry pocket watches, several pairs of my pants still feature a pouch for a pocket watch inside the right front pant pocket. A fine pocket watch was once a prized and treasured possession.
Editor’s note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge, is an award-winning columnist, a retired Methodist minister with a passion for history. He is vice president of the Pea Ridge Historical Society. The opinions expressed are those of the author. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 621-1621.
Now & Then