Shades of Grey: It's All About Time

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We live in a world that seems to be obsessed by time. Pick up any book of quotations, and you will find a whole bunch of statements about it. The Greek Pericles said, "Time is the wisest counsellor of all."

And songs are right up there. There's no telling how many songs there are about time. The county must be somewhere up in the hundreds. "Time in a Bottle" and "Till the End of Time" are just a couple.

Literature is full of time references. Who can forget those opening lines from the Third Chapter of Ecclesiastes, "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven," or the opening words of Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Our everyday expressions are also filled with time references. We say that an old building is suffering the "ravages of time," or that a person in prison is "serving time."

I've heard it said that man invented time, but I don't think that's the case. However, I think that man has, because of his obsession with it, invented the measurement of time. History is filled with examples of man's attempts to find an accurate way to measure this entity. We call our device that does this a "clock" from the Latin word for bell (clocca). This designation is relatively recent only beginning about 700 years ago.

The first clocks were sundials. The oldest we have record of dates to about 5,500 years ago. However, they only worked during the daylight hours on sunny days. It took over 2,000 years before the Egyptians (about 3,400 years ago) developed a water clock, later improved by the Greeks, which measured time irrespective of the sun or light.

The Sumerian system, developed about 4,000 years ago, was taken over and refined, in turn, by the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks. The day was divided into 24 periods (hours), each hour divided into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds. The Greeks divided the year into 12 parts (months) and each month into 30 parts, producing a 360-day year. The extra five days were just stuck in. So, by about 1000 B.C. time was pretty well divided up as we know it today. What remained was to develop devices which would measure its passage with some accuracy. That took over 2,500 years.

In Germany in 1510 a spring clock was invented, but it was not very accurate. These clocks only had hour hands. The minute hand was invented in 1577 and by the mid-1600s, the first practical clock driven by a pendulum was invented. Even though man has been on the earth for thousands of years, he has only been able to measure accurately the passage of time for about the last 300.

And even by the late 19th century, there was no standard time throughout the world. So in 1884 delegates from most sovereign nations met and agreed to divide the earth into 24 time zones with each zone being 15 degrees wide at the equator. English influence was apparent when the starting point, the Prime Meridian, zero degrees longitude, was drawn through England's National Observatory in Greenwich, a London suburb. It's impressive even today to go there and straddle the line and stand with one foot in Western Longitude, the other in Eastern.

Today we take the accurate measurement of time for granted. There are clocks everywhere, and most homes and most people have more than one. It was not many years ago when many poor homes did not have a clock.

English villages used to employ a person to wake up the shop owners who lived above their shops. He would come along with a little wooden mallet on a long stick and rap on the closed shutters. He was called the knocker-upper, and when he knocked on your shutters you were said to be knocked up. One English lady found that Americans have a slightly different meaning for that term when she came to this country to work and was late one morning. When her lateness was pointed out she said, "What I need is for someone to come and knock me up in the morning."

Early in the 1900s Einstein theorized that time was not a constant but was inversely proportional to speed, i.e. the faster the speed, the slower of time. Of course, there was no way to test this until experiments with atomic clocks in rockets proved him correct. The fastest thing we know of in the universe is light, which travels at 186,000 miles per second. If one could travel at this speed, time would stand still which would, in theory, make extended space travel possible. It's something to think about.

Time is the only thing I know of in which every single person on earth is equal. We all get 1,440 minutes every day (if we're not moving too fast). It's what we choose to do with them that makes the difference.

Remember: "Time is what prevents everything from happening at once." - John Archibald Wheeler

Lucas G. "Luke" Boyd's career spans 48 years in the field of education, retiring after serving as principal of Battle Ground Academy in Franklin for 19 years. He has published two books, eight short stories and an article in "Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture." He may be contacted at

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