Why We Divide the Day Into Seconds, Minutes, and Hours

Note: This is a guest article contributed by frequent TIFO visitor, paramedic, and amateur physicist, Scott.

Today I found out why we divide the day in to seconds, minutes, and hours.

The concept of needing to divide up the day seems second nature to even the smallest kid who asks, “is it snack time”.   The reality is, even though we’ve decided that there is a need to divide up time, the actual process and the way we go about it has been changing for millennia.  The cruel irony is that even though we know we need to measure time, there has never been a consensus on what time really is.

Throughout all of history there have been two main schools of thought on what time is, and even many more opinions on how we should measure it.  The first concept of time is one that most current physicists tend to subscribe to, and that is time is a fundamental dimension in the universe.  The 4th dimension in which the other three dimensions of space (length width and height) can move through in sequence.   The second concept of time argues against the idea that it is a dimension, but rather an intellectual concept that allows people to sequence and compare events.  That time does not exist on its own, but is a way in which we represent things.

While many physicists tend to view time as a dimension, I assume because they are trying to hold fast to Einstein’s theories on Space-Time, I prefer to view it as a tool.  This is because our universe is constantly changing.  From one moment to the next, it is always in motion.  From electrons moving around atomic nuclei, to the Basketball player trying to get their shot off before the game-clock runs out, everything in our universe is in motion.  To be able to understand it, we need a tool.  If you view the universe as a car and time as a very important tool in a toolkit, you can see how time would not be a dimension.  You need tools to take apart a car and just like the socket set is needed to take apart and understand all the inner-workings of that automobile, so too time is needed to take apart and understand the change in our universe from one moment to the next.  But just like the socket set will never be a part of the car, so too time will never be a part of the universe, just a needed tool to understand it.

Whatever your position on what time actually is, one constant has always remained; how do you measure it? In chronometry (The science of the measurement of time) there are two distinct forms of measurement, the calendar and the clock.  The calendar is used to measure the passage of extensive periods of time, and the clock is used to count the ongoing passage of time and is consulted for periods of less than a day.  We obviously will focus on periods of less than a day, because if we go into the calendar debate, we would inevitably decide our world was ending in 2012!!

Today the most widely used numerical system is a base 10 system (decimal).  This seems appropriate given we all have 10 fingers and toes, so grade-schoolers and myself, after a few beers, can do math easily!  Unfortunately for us, the pre-Dewey Decimal civilizations either never tried to count their sheep drunk, or just plain hated their kids, but all seemed to use other more complicated systems like a base 12 (duodecimal), or base 60 (sexagesimal)

The first society credited with separating the day out into smaller parts was the Egyptians.  They divided a day into two twelve hour sections; night and day.  The clock they used to measure time was the sundial.  The first sundials were just stakes in the ground and you knew what time it was by the length and direction of the suns shadow. Advances in technology, namely a t-shaped bar placed into the ground, allowed them more accurately measure the day in 12 distinct parts.  (Damn duodecimal system!!) It was thought that one explanation for this base system was that one could get to twelve easily by counting the knuckles on all four fingers with their thumb.  (Apparently they did not have DUI patrols for drunken camel driving and ancient cops performing field sobriety tests having folks touch their thumbs to their fingers; otherwise, they would realize that this method for counting was not a good idea!)

The drawback to this early clock was that at night there was no real way to measure time.  Egyptians, like us, still needed to measure time after dark.  After all, how else would we know when the bars close?  So their early astronomers observed a set of 36 stars, 18 of which they used to mark the passage of time after the sun was down.  Six of them would be used to mark the 3 hours of twilight on either side of the night and twelve then would be used to divide up the darkness into 12 equal parts.  Later on, somewhere between 1550 and 1070 BC, this system was simplified to just use a set of 24 stars, of which 12 were used to mark the passage of time.

There were many other methods, in ancient times, for measuring the passage of time after dark. The most accurately known clock was a water clock, called a clepsydra.  Dating back to approx. 1400-1500 BC, this device was able to mark the passage of time during various months, despite the seasons.  It used a slanting interior surface that was inscribed with scales that allowed for a decrease in water pressure as the water flowed out of a hole at the bottom of the vessel.

Since the day and night could now be divided up into 12 equal parts, the concept of a 24 hour day was born.  Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until about 150 BC that the Greek astronomer Hipparchus suggested the idea of a fixed set of time for each hour was needed.  He proposed dividing the up the day into 24 equinoctial hours observed on equinox days.  Unfortunately for the bean-counters in charge of overtime hours, most laypeople continued to use seasonally varying hours for several centuries to come.  It wasn’t until about the 14th century, when mechanical clocks were commonplace, that a fixed length for an hour became widely accepted.

Hipparchus himself, and other astronomers, used astronomical techniques they borrowed from the Babylonians who made calculations using a base 60 system.  It’s unknown why the Babylonians, who inherited it from the Sumerians, originally chose to use 60 as a base for a calculation system. However, it is extremely convenient for expressing fractions of time using 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30.

The idea of using this base 60 system as a means of dividing up the hour was born from the idea of devising a geographical system to mark the Earth’s geometry.  The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, who lived between 276-194 B.C., used this sexagesimal system to divide a circle into 60 parts.  These lines of latitude were horizontal and ran through well-known places on the Earth at the time.  Later, Hipparchus devised longitudinal lines that encompassed 360 degrees.  Even later, the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy expanded on Hipparchus’ work and divided each of the 360 degrees of latitude and longitude into 60 equal parts.  These parts were further subdivided into 60 smaller parts.  He called the first division “partes minutae primae”, or first minute.  The subdivided smaller parts he called “partes minutae secundae”, or second minute, which became known as the second.

Once again, these measuring techniques were lost on the general public until around the 16th century.  The first mechanical clocks would divide the hour into halves, quarters, or thirds.  It wasn’t practical for the layperson to need the hour divided up into minutes.

Advances in technology and science over the centuries have required that there be a more precise defined value for the measurement of a second.  Currently, in the International System of Units (SI), the second is the base unit for time.  This then is multiplied out to get a minute, hour, day, etc. etc.

The first accurately measurable means of defining a second came with the advent of the pendulum.   This method was commonly used as a means of counting time in early mechanical clocks.  In 1956, the second was defined in terms of the period of revolution of the Earth around the Sun for a particular epoch.  Since it was already known that the Earth’s rotation on its axis was not a sufficiently uniform standard of measurement, the second became defined as; “The fraction 1/31,556,925.9747 of the tropical year for 1900 January 0 at 12 hours ephemeris time.”

With the development of the atomic clock, it was decided that it was more practical and accurate to use them as a means to define a second, rather than the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. Using a common-view measurement method based on the received signals from radio station, scientists were able to determine that a second of ephemeris time was 9,192,631,770 ± 20 cycles of the chosen cesium frequency.  So in 1967 the Thirteenth General Conference on Weights and Measures defined the second of atomic time in the International System of Units 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 cesium-133 atom.”

Unfortunately for laypeople, scientist with their constant need to be correct and absolutely accurate, found the effects of gravitational forces cause the second to differ depending on the altitude at which it was measured.  A uniform second was produced in 1977 by correcting the output of each atomic clock to mean sea level.  This, however, lengthened the second by about 1×10−10. This correction was then applied at the beginning of 1977.

Today, there are atomic clocks that operate in several different frequency and optical regions.  While state-of-the-art cesium fountain atomic clocks seem to be the most widely accurate, optical clocks have become increasingly competitive in their performance against their microwave counterparts.

What seems to remain true is that as technology becomes more and more advanced, the need to more accurately measure time will continue to evolve.  What remains true for most of us however is that we get to use easy ghetto math and simply know that there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day!

Bonus Facts:

  • Because the second is based on the number of times the cesium atom transitions between the two hyperfine levels of its ground state compared to ephemeris time, and the fact that the earth’s rotation is slowing down, it becomes necessary to add periodic “leap seconds” into the atomic timescale to keep the two within one second of each other.
  • Since 1972 to 2006 there have been 23 leap seconds added, ranging from one every 6 months to 1 every 7 years.
  • The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) is the organization which monitors the difference in the two timescales and calls for leap seconds to be inserted or removed when necessary.
  • Although it is not a standard defined by the International System of Units, the hour is a unit accepted for use with SI, represented by the symbol h.
  • In astronomy, the Julian year is a unit of time, defined as 365.25 days of 86400 SI seconds each.
  • It is though that the moon was used to calculate time as early as 10,000-28,000 BC. Lunar calendars were among the first to appear, either 12 or 13 lunar months (either 346 or 364 days). Lunisolar calendars often have a thirteenth month added to some years to make up for the difference between a full year (now known to be about 365.24 days) and a year of just twelve lunar months. The numbers twelve and thirteen came to feature prominently in many cultures, at least partly due to this relationship of months to years.
Expand for References:
Disclaimer: Guest Articles are written by various people and, while I do my best to make sure they are factual by checking their sources and as well as weighing the plausibility of the thing before allowing them to be posted, I do not guarantee that everything in them is going to be 100% accurate as I myself didn’t do the research for these articles and it’s possible their sources, even if they are reputable, are themselves inaccurate.
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  • Withheld For Privacy

    No. No we wouldn’t inevitably decide that time will end in 2012. That’s a myth. Here’s the reality. The Incan lookie-loo asked the Incan sculpture, “Why did you stop it at 2012?”. The Incan sculpture answered, “Because I ran out of room on the rock.”

  • The Sumerians were first

    The Sumerians were first, and used base 60 because it is very easy to divide into other integral parts, such as 6 parts of 10, 4 quarters of 15, etc. Consider the usefulness of having easy slices of time to with with instead of odd decimals (which wouldn’t even exist for millennia later)

    But you really didn’t answer the question I thought you might which is why do we need to divide the day into seconds and minutes. Ok maybe hours aren’t precise enough but outside of train schedules, who uses times other than 10, 15 or 30 minutes off the hour? The Sumerians had it right

    Even with advent of digital clocks we prefer the simpler analog circle to show the relative slice of time that it is.

    As for scientists and Olympic judges, they use fractional seconds as a tool indeed. But the rest of us could live far simpler lives with just the sliced pie of a circle of each hour — no second hand on the watch

    Just like getting rid of boggling pennies, nickels and dimes. Just quarters and dollars do the job.

    And while we’re at it — getting rid of the bureaucratic overhead and shenanigans of 50 unequally sliced states! Just one country, indivisible, with liberty, justice and simpler voting for all.

  • No. No we wouldn’t inevitably decide that time will end in 2012. That’s a myth. Here’s the reality. The Incan lookie-loo asked the Incan sculpture, “Why did you stop it at 2012?”. The Incan sculpture answered, “Because I ran out of room on the rock.”

  • I just realized this is a year old but.

    “Unfortunately for laypeople, scientist with their constant need to be correct and absolutely accurate, found the effects of gravitational forces cause the second to differ depending on the altitude at which it was measured.”

    This is your proof that time is a dimension. One does not simply get to decide that it is not. The Tools are
    secs, mins, days, years. not time itself anymore than space being an abstract because we break it into miles or kilometers or light years.

  • DC- The author isn’t arguing that time is a dimension, he simply stated that time needs to be a dimension if you adhere to a “space-time” continuum. Yes, time is a different sort of dimension then the three of space, but still one none the less. I agree with the author that time is a tool. That tool is expressed in secs, mins, days, and years. Secs., mins, days, and years are not the tool. The continuum of space and time is necessary because the three dimensions of space are constantly in motion. Take away that motion and time suddenly isn’t necessary to describe the change. Thus…. shouldn’t be a fundamental dimension but a tool to describe how the other three dimensions are changing.

    • That’s dumb. Take away motion and you take away everything that exists in the universe. Take away motion and you take away the universe itself. In your attempt to argue the opposite you’ve logically concluded time is a fundamental element of the universe, i.e., a fundamental dimension. I think what throws most lay people off is that time only has one direction, but it is a dimension nonetheless.

      • Take away temperature and nothing in the universe makes sense. Does that make temperature a dimension? Time, or rather the rate of change, like temperature, is different depending on where it functions. But does that make Time a dimension?

        I have serious issues with this sort of semantics. It misleads laymen completely and scientists are dumb asses for employing it UNLESS they deliberately color their work unnecessarily complicated. Time is not a dimension. Dimension specifically applies to spacial locations. Time is not space. They appear intertwined but that does not make them the same thing.

        • Temperature is really the speed and movement of particles and speed can be represented as distance/time (distance is a measure of space)

  • The “gehtto math” comment is racist and classist, Unappreciated.

  • “…and direction of the suns shadow.” Sun’s; it’s a possessive.

  • January First-of-May

    On the whole 2012 world-ending thing:
    The Mayan (not Incan, not notably Aztec*, might have been Toltec) calendar involved in that story, the so-called Long Count, basically counted days in base 20** (vigesimal). It’s a bit more complicated than that, but essentially it came up to this.
    It so happened that one particular round number of days, said to be important to Mayan numerology (it’s somewhat debated whether that is true), happened to come up in December 2012 by our calendar.
    It is almost certainly not true that the Mayans thought the world was going to end on that day; in particular, there are Mayan texts making reference to dates later than that (and one particular text is often said to be referring to a date some truly outrageous number of years in the future – well in the trillions, IIRC).

    *) unlike the Sun Stone, which is Aztec but not actually Mayan
    **) because we have 20 fingers and toes, naturally – of course there’s only 10 of each

  • Couple of comments. The reason 12 is used is because if you hold you hands at arm’s length with your fingers outstretched but tightly together, and you lay one hand on top of the other, and you continue this way, moving the lower hand to the top, left over right, right over left, then the number of hands to go from horizon to horizon is 12. Since the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, it’s an extremely easy and mostly accurate way to determine how many hands of daylight you have experienced and have left. Since the sun travels the same number of hands at night (presumably), there were 24 hands in a complete cycle – which translated to 24 hours. Of course, as the need for accuracy increased, so did the required resolution, which is where sundials, etc came in. But the original genesis is from the number of hands needed to go from horizon to horizon.

    And as has already been said, no one gets to just “choose” how to view time, any more than you can “choose” to believe “up” is a direction or a state of mind. When describing the universe, you need to use mathematics. The Basis for our universe requires three physical dimensions (x,y,z; rho, theat, r,; rho theta, psi, or any other element you wish to choose) plus time. You cannot describe events in our universe without a time dimension. If you choose to view it as something else – a tool, a cookie, whatever – you do so because you really have no idea what you’re talking about.

  • Leandro Martins de Lima

    I’m dissapointed that nowhere, neither in the comments, is mentionned the French Revolution when they adpoted a decimal time system: each day divided 10 hours, each hour subdivided in 100 minutes and each minute subdivided in 100 seconds. They went even farther and also created a (pseudo) decimal calendar: 12 months each with 3 weeks of 10 days (resulting in 30 days months). The five remaining days were complimentary days reserved for national holidays.