17 February 2007

Time in a bottle

The concept of time has changed through the ages. It has changed a lot in the last twenty five years. This was forcibly brought home to me when I was watching the start of the second series of Life on Mars. For the uninitiated, Life on Mars is a British cop show with a twist. A policeman in 2006 is run over by car and somehow wakes up in 1973. It is surreal but one of the best things of British television at the moment. In this particular episode, the hero asks for the time, expecting a precise answer. What he gets instead is a vague – oh a bit past four. The necessity of having the exact minute has not occurred to the policeman from 1973.

Time had a different meaning. It was far more elastic. And the writer of historicals needs to take this into account.

For example, in the ancient world, there was no concept of a second or for that matter a minute. Even though Ptolemy divided a circle up and called one sixtieth a minuta prima or prime minute, it is not until you start having mechanical round clocks in the fourteenth century that there begins to be a fixed notion of how long an hour takes. Hours have been around much longer. The Romans divided the day up into twelve hours, but the length of each hour varied with the amount of time the sun was in the sky. The Romans were very concerned about time. Many carried pocket sundials, for instance. Water clocks were a highly desirable commodity, and a great talking point -- much as a piano might be to a late Victorian householder. But they were not precise on their measurements.

In the medieval period, many people timed their lives by the church bells, but again, the concepts of minutes and seconds was not as important. The term watch meaning small timepiece is not recorded until the late sixteenth century. Indeed although mechanical clocks were invented in the fourteenth century, it is not until the eighteenth century that the term of the clock is shortened to o'clock. Knowing the precise time that something was not important.

As the 18th century wore on, and timepieces became more affordable, trains and other forms of transport started running to schedules, people became more and more aware of the divisions of time. The division of time started to matter to them. Until you reach today, and people speak in specifics.

Because I write in several different time periods, I have to be aware of the varying concepts of time. And yet, until I started writing about ancient historical periods, it was something that I had not given much consideration to.

Has anyone else found the varying notions of ways things are perceived intriguing?