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Captain's Log

December 2015

Timekeeping

Time Gentlemen Please

Time Gentlemen Please

'The seven forty-three fast train to Victoria is running approximately seven minutes late...' The would-be passengers waiting on platform four took the announcement and the delay in their stride. Engineering works at Clapham Junction...leaves on the line...even the wrong sort of snow - they'd heard all the excuses and accepted late trains as a fact of life. Yet ironically railways played a vital part in the story of timekeeping. But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves...

 

Clock Watching
Quite a bit, as it happens. Because time has fascinated mankind since, well since it began, or very nearly. The ancient civilisations relied initially on the position of the sun in the sky which led to the development of the sundial. That was all very well around the Mediterranean and the Middle East where the skies were predominantly clear, but less practical in cloudy northern regions. A solution of sorts was found in the hourglass and candles calibrated in rings. As the candle burnt down you counted the remaining rings to see how many hours had passed. Then, around 1290 the Chinese designed the water clock. Where the clockwork variety originated is debatable but a pocket watch with a spring mechanism was invented by Peter Henlein a clock maker from Nurenberg, Germany in 1504. And although seventy-seven years later Galileo realised that a swinging pendulum keeps regular time, it wasn't until 1680 that the first successful pendulum clock was built by one Christiaan Huygens. But clocks still only indicated the hours. Curiously, it wasn't until 1680 that someone had the bright idea of making time-telling simpler by adding a minute hand. 

Accuracy at Last
In much the same way as the makers of mobile/smart phones keep incorporating more and more new functions, eighteenth century horologists began adding the fore-runner of 'apps'. Clocks not only told the time, but also the date, day of the week, phases of the moon and tides. But greater sophistication and complexity didn't necessarily make for greater accuracy. The outstanding achievement in that line was the marine chronometer invented by John Harrison in 1735. A genuine breakthrough, this highly accurate timepiece enabled sailors to calculate their position at sea and revolutionised navigation and map-making. 

Greenwich Meantime
Clocks were becoming more precise, more reliable but telling the right time still depended on where you were. Time was regulated from Greenwich which was fine for London but increasingly tricky the farther you went from the capital. In major cities, towns and small villages around the country, time was a local affair. The clock on the parish church tower or front of the town hall was what people relied on and set their own clocks by. Which led to some interesting discrepancies. 

The United States has four time zones. Russia a lot more. It may be a long way to Tipperary but if you live in Moscow it's a very long way to Vladivostok. Britain - in the eighteenth century had dozens - albeit unofficial 'times'. Towns or villages just a few miles apart were frequently hours adrift. And nobody really cared. Until George Stephenson got things moving.  

Travelling Through Time and Space
By the 1840s railway fever gripped the nation. New lines were constantly being laid and networks extended. It's worth remembering that up until the nineteenth century the majority of the population were born, lived and died within a five mile radius. Now all that was changing. People were travelling as never before and the happy-go-lucky concept of 'local time' was causing problems. There were cases of a train journey taking an hour but the passengers finding they were arriving at their destination apparently ten minutes before they'd started. In the immortal words of Scotty in Star Trek (circa 1968) "You canna defy the laws of physics, Cap'n" - or the time/space continuum for that matter. So railway inspectors were issued with accurate watches and station clocks were synchronised. For the first time when it was nine o'clock in Billingsgate it was nine o'clock in Birmingham, Bristol, Barnstaple and Bideford too.

Appropriately enough I suppose, there seem to be a lot of dates in this piece. Anyway here's a final one. In 1948 the atomic clock was invented. This is the super-accurate timepiece that - amongst other things - regulates radio-controlled clocks and watches. The ones that boast of their precision - to within a second - in a million years. It's an impressive claim, but only time will tell...
 


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