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What Time Is It?

What time is it? When did this question become so important? Did man always have a system for keeping time? Were there always timekeeping devices people could use to know the time? The history of time can be fascinating as can the history of timekeeping devices. Many sites on the internet have information about old clocks and watches and many museums have collections of timekeepers. The TimeKeepers resource will help you learn more about some of the timepieces used.

First, a little history.....

In the late 16th century wearing a watch became more common than it had been in earlier times. The need for timekeepers, especially personal timekeepers became more needed as the industrial activity spread across Europe. Although timetables for some services such as courier mail delivery and the delivery of cargo or transportation of passengers by coach existed, there was no commonly accepted time standard during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Different countries or towns may have even begun their days at different times, times which coordinated with the sun. Some began their days at sunrise, while others began a new day at midnight, sunset or noon. There was what was termed "Italian" time which divided the day into 24 hours and "German hours" or "French hours" which marked time into two periods of 12 hours each. (The later system was much easier on bell ringing clocks.) Anyone traveling abroad needed a conversion table in addition to a timekeeper in order to know what time it was at their different destinations.

The need for time standardization in business brought more localities to embrace the pattern used today which marks time from midnight to midnight with 12 AM or morning hours and 12 PM or afternoon hours. Even though this standardization was developing, many localities continued to mark their personal non-business related time based on local customs using the sun times they had always used.

It wasn't until the 19th century when the railroad came into play that there was a perceived need by the populace to have standardized time established between localities and countries. With earlier forms of transportation it might have taken one or more days for travelers to reach their destination and so the local time discrepancies were not too important. A timekeeper called a "coach watch" might have hung inside the coach passengers rode in and it would be reset when arriving at a locality with a different time. Often these coach watches were equipped with an alarm so travelers would not oversleep. With the trains traveling so much faster than land coaches, people needed to have a way of knowing when they would begin or end their travel and when the trains would be arriving at all the stops on their routes. This need helped lead to the establishment of regional and national time zones.

By the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th century, the push for standardization of time went global and international agreements were established. The invention of the telegraph allowed the railroads to instantly send an exact hour and minute from the central office to every station on the line. This technique was first used to give precision to train timetables by the London and North Western Railways. This eventually led to the recommendation in 1847 by the British Railway Clearing House that each railway company adopt the Greenwich time at all their stations.

Wherever there were railroads there soon after developed standard times. This prepared the way for a single national hour as a reference point for the time within a country. The United States ran into difficulty because of the large expanse of land but this was solved in 1883 with the establishment of time zones. Later, time zones were set up with international agreements to partition the entire earth. The base measurement or zero longitude was set at Greenwich. Only the French held out and decided to mark their zero longitude at a Paris observatory. But in 1911, France also shifted to using Greenwich.

With the standardization of time it became possible for it to be measured more accurately and eliminate the confusion regarding time in everyday life activities. This made clocks and watches much more necessary to individuals. One room school houses gave way to large buildings with many classrooms and large numbers of students needing to move between classes at predetermined times. Businesses grew and industrial operations had many shifts of workers and areas where knowing the time became increasingly important. The clocks you will find included in this resource will help you find out about many of the different timekeepers and the ways timekeepers have been used throughout history.

The Frick Electric Program Clock is an example of a clock which helped schools and industry with the important task of being able to answer the question, "What time is it?"


Read the information above and other articles or online resources about the topic. Many sites are listed below.

Research different types of clocks. List dates and types of timekeeping devices. Develop a time line of the timekeepers (clocks) you find.You may want to use the TimeLiner software by Tom Snyder to develop your time line..A resource to help you is a "Brief History of Clocks" or three slide shows which take you on a historical tour of time. Include the Frick Clock on your time line.

Discuss what might have been the problems encountered if a way to standardize time had not been developed world-wide or even across the United States.

Ask the question - How have timekeepers (clocks) helped our world?

How is the standardization of time kept accurate today? Are there special clocks used to help with this? Which agencies help?


The above information and much, much more is from:
Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World by David S. Landes
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Massachusetts.

Take a tour of time at and travel through links to solar time, time zones, atomic time, and more about the measurement of time.

History of Clocks, Watches and Timekeeping at includes links to informationation about famous clockmakers, history of timekeeping standards and much more

Time Converter Select seconds, hours, minutes, days or years and what you want to convert them into. Input the number of your selection to convert and click.

Time Service Department U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, DC. The Department of the Navy serves as the country's official timekeeper, with the Master Clock facility at the Washington Naval Observatory. There is a link here to a U.S. Time Zone Converter and to the USNO Master Clock.

A History of Clocks: From Thales to Ptolemy at gives information from very Greek times including a drawing of the water clock and celestial sphere.

Clocks and Time at /has links to history, clockmaking, publications organizations, newsgroups,museums and more dealing with time topics.

National Institue of Stanards in Boulder, Colorado, at has information you might find useful as you discuss the need for standarizing time measurement. The FAQ page has some interesting information about general time questions such as "When does the next millennium begin?" and "How is the second defined?"

Encylopaedia Britannica Millennium Article covers information on the Millenium Dome Greenwich.Greenwich England is where East meets West at the Greenwich Meridian (0 Longitude); World Time is set Greenwich Mean Time . The Millennium Dome was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on December 31, 1999. But remember that the millennium doesn't officially begin until 2001.

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Carla Schutte, Mike Lipinski, Susan Silverman
Gail Watson, Tammy Payton
March 2000