Along with an elephant whose name in Arabic meant “the father of intelligence,” Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid presented Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne with a mechanical clock powered by water in 807. At noon a weight dropped, bells sounded, and twelve brass horsemen emerged from twelve windows.
The duke of Milan, Azzo Visconti, commissioned a clock to be built in the campanile of San Gottardo; upon its completion in 1336 his secretary, Galvano Fiamma, wrote that the “admirable” timepiece had bells that struck “twenty-four times according to the number of the twenty-four hours of the day and night.” He concluded, “This is exceedingly necessary for people of all estates.” It is the first documented hour-striking clock in a public setting.
“Kings embodied the whole period of their reign,” wrote Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power. “Their death, whether it came with the decline of their strength or, as later, coincided with their natural span of life, indicated a break in time. They were time. Between one king and the next, time stood still. There was a gap in it—an interregnum—which people sought to keep as short as possible.”
In Natural Theology, published in 1802, William Paley posited that there was a difference between finding a stone and a watch on the ground. He wrote, “the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer: who comprehended its construction and designed its use.” Paley used the watchmaker analogy to justify the existence of God.
During his first trip to New York City in 1964, Samuel Beckett went to a doubleheader at Shea Stadium with his friend Dick Seaver, who explained the game of baseball to the Irish writer. Halfway through the second game, Seaver asked, “Would you like to go now?” To which Beckett replied, “Is the game over, then?” “Not yet,” said Seaver.
In 1863, four years before publishing the first volume of Das Kapital, Karl Marx wrote to Friedrich Engels that apart from “the discoveries of gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press—these necessary preconditions of bourgeois development—the two material bases on which the preparations for machine industry were organized within manufacture...were the clock and the mill.” He elaborated: “The clock is the first automatic machine applied to practical purposes, and the whole theory of production of regular motion was developed on it.”
To combat widespread tardiness in the Ivory Coast, President Laurent Gbagbo in 2007 backed a Punctuality Night contest, which touted the slogan “African time is killing Africa, let’s fight it.” Nine prizes were awarded to the most punctual civil servants and businesspeople. Known to his colleagues as “Mr. White Man’s Time,” legal adviser Narcisse Aka won the first-place prize, a $60,000 villa.
During a total solar eclipse in 1919, astronomer and physicist Arthur Eddington observed from Príncipe Island that gravity bent the path of light to the degree predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Eddington went on to help popularize relativity and the idea that the universe was expanding. When asked how many people really understood his theories of universal expansion, he replied, “Perhaps seven.”
On November 24, 1793—or what then became known as Frimaire 4, II—the revolutionary French government officially replaced the Gregorian calendar, introducing one based on the Egyptian calendar with newly named months (such as Thermidor and Brumaire) of thirty days each, comprised of three ten-day weeks (each day lasted ten hours, or one thousand minutes, or ten thousand seconds). It was abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806.
At the thirteenth General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1967, one second was redefined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.” In April of this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, unveiled a new atomic clock to act as the United States’ primary time standard; it will not gain or lose a second in 300 million years.