Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Stupid, and Incorrect, Observation

I have seen a claim a few times that is quite misleading. In several essays on how industrialization has changed us, or changed our perceptions, people repeatedly make the claim that "before such and such a date [usually in the early 19th century, sometimes late 18th] clocks did not have minute hands". From this observations -- correct as far as it goes -- they draw all sorts of erroneous meaning and imagine that, prior to the demands of "demon industry" we were happy saying "oh, it is round about six" and did not even conceive of minutes, which is quite wrong.

Do you doubt me? Then look at ancient texts, look at Roman writing, old alchemists, anything, and, guess what? They mention MINUTES! Or at least fractions of hours in the earliest cases, but in later times minutes do appear, even before the minute hand makes its appearance. Adam Smith and James Watt did not invent the smaller divisions of time, nor did people of the past not know they existed. Granted, in some contexts they did not matter, but that is true now. In some cases in the past, as today, it was enough to know it is "a little after noon" or "sometime in the morning". But when people needed to know things to a more fine tuned degree, they were perfectly capable of doing so.

So, what about the minute hand?

Well, think about it. Until mechanical clocks became common, the most ubiquitous timepiece was the sundial. It operates by throwing shadows. How will you put a minute hand on it? But that does not mean there are not small tick marks between the hours. You may not be able to tell 11:22 from 11:23 on it, but you can definitely tell time in units smaller than an hour.

Then we have the "hour glass", which, as its name suggests, was often designed to mark the passage of an hour, but also existed in larger and smaller units. And while they did not explicitly mark off the quarter hour, half hour and so on, it was pretty easy to estimate from an hour glass what part of the hour had passed or remained.

The next most popular non-mechanical timekeeper was the candle. These were sold in a lot of sizes, each made to burn down by set increments, allowing you to see the passage of time by seeing which marks had been consumed. As I said, they came in a number of sizes, the one covering an entire day or night being most common, but smaller and larger candles existed, allowing the telling of time in a more fine-grained manner.

And then we come to the early mechanical clocks. While it may not be surprising, it seems to be overlooked that the clock face is itself inspired by the sundial, and thus early clocks normally had one hand to tell hour and minute. It was not that they did not tell minutes, just that it was more familiar, and mechanically more practical to use a single hand for both. As technology improved (including advances in metal working, spring manufacture and so on) it became possible to tell time more minutely, and eventually a minute hand was added for added precision.

But this says nothing about how we perceived time, or that the industrial revolution changed how time was measured. I will grant, the prevalence of precise minute-hand clocks probably was speeded by the needs of railroads, but they existed before rail. And the second hand, it was not instituted because of some industrial need, but simply because it became technically possible. Thus undercutting the thesis of this argument.

Let us look at it this way, kitchen timers all have minutes but not hours, does that mean bakers cannot conceive of hours? That the demands of baking remove hours from their consciousness? No.

And this argument is equally silly. It is a combination of Marxist dogma that the means of production determine everything, and the theory that the past is an alien land, which allows us to believe the most absurd things about our ancestors. I will grant, the past was unlike the present, and people may have held beliefs we cannot conceive today, but they also were humans, with the same drives and logic as we have, and thus, given an understanding of their motives, were perfectly understandable.

All of which is round about way of saying this a load of bunk.


I am sure some of you will notice I agree earlier times did not precisely define 1/60 of an hour and argue I am mistaken, that ancients did not see time as we did. But that is wrong. Granted, due to technical limitations, they could not so finely subdivide the hour, and so had no term in the earliest eras for the modern minute, but that does not mean they had no concept of time more fine grained than an hour, nor that the industrial revolution invented the minute. People have always divided time, and units smaller than hours were always recognized, it just varied how small a unit they could usefully measure. It was not the industrial revolution but technical developments that made small measures possible. And thus, while I suppose, by making better springs and gears available, the industrial revolution played a part in the current subdivision of time, it certainly did not bring them into existence. The concept existed earlier, we just could not practically measure them.

UPDATE (2016/04/02): Having read through this  a few times, I keep thinking I could have said this better. So, I think I will give it another try. The many essays I read obsessed with missing minute hands, seemed to take from that observation the idea that before the 18th or 19th century, people not only did not specifically measure minutes, but only thought of time in large, hour-sized blocks. And that is nonsense. The modern minute may not have existed, or at least been measured accurately, but there definitely was an understanding of subdivisions smaller than an hour. Time was not seem in some bucolic, "an hour's good enough" haze prior to Willoughby, the Stephensons or Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nor was the concept of "minute" completely unknown prior to the minute hand.  After all, does it make sense for a largely decimal-dominated era to decide to use a 12 and 60 based system for divisions? No, subdividing circle predates the industrial revolution by quite some time, and the concept of a 60th division of an hour can be found as early as Roger Bacon, though it may be even earlier, his is but the first known reference. So my point is, quite simply, that imagining that the invention of rail and minute hands somehow magically changed how we see time is utter nonsense, and, as I said above, an embodiment of the Marxist silliness that the "means of production" control how we think, instead of the other way round.

Should probably have just written that short form in the first place.

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