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We are used to the times of day being the same in one time zone (such as throughout Britain). However, in the past, towns in Britain measured their hours according to the sun, so midday in one town would be a few minutes different from another. When the railways came, the rail companies needed to publish a single timetable which would work throughout Britain. So they created Railway Time (or Greenwich Mean Time), and all railway clocks showed it. If you wanted to catch a train, then your own clock had better run on Railway Time, and so this became standard time in Britain. Railway Time was first applied by the Great Western Railway in England in November 1840, and the rest of the rail companies followed them in the next few years. This page from an 1843 Bradshaw gives various local times in England, although it must been getting out of date by then.
The most famous clock in England is Big Ben. It is on the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, built around 1859. The bells play part of the Westminster chimes on each quarter hour, gradually building up to the complete chime on the hour, after which the biggest bell (which is in fact Big Ben itself) strikes the hour. There is still a clockwork mechanism, which is adjusted by putting more or less old pennies on the pendulum.
It might be thought that the hours were always like this, but they weren't. The French revolutionaries tried to reform telling the time as well as other measurement. The day, from midnight to midnight, was divided into ten parts, each part into ten others, so on until the smallest measurable portion of duration. This system quickly went out of use, but some clocks still survive from that time (see right).
Even longer ago, the telling of the hours didn't begin at midnight. It started at dawn, and there were twelve hours during daylight. Since this day varied in length throughout the year, the hour varied too. The monastic timetable of the Benedictines had a regular round of services every 24 hours. Some of these were described by the hour. Prime was at day-break, or the first hour. Terce was the third hour, at about 9am. Sext was the sixth hour, at noon. None was at 3pm, the ninth hour.
The day is an obvious unit of time, which no-one seems to have any trouble with! As the earth turns, we are either facing the sun, daylight, or facing away from it, night-time.
The next larger unit of time is the week. The Romans had an 8-day week, but the Christians had a 7-day week, like the Jews, and rested on the 7th day (except their day of rest is Sunday, rather than the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday). So once the Romans became Christian, they also adopted the 7-day week. In English the days of the week are named after the old Saxon gods, but French days of the week use Roman gods instead, and these correspond to the known planets and other heavenly bodies. Click here for more about the days of the week.
Once we get onto the month, things start to get complicated. The month is roughly based on a 'moon', or the time from one new moon to the next. Unfortunately, there is not an exact number of days in a moon (let alone a precise number of weeks), and there is not an exact number of moons in a year. Early calendars were lunar-based, and they found that this meant the start of the year, and all dates within the year, gradually changed when they happened compared with what the sun was doing. While moons are useful divisions of the year, what the moon is doing is not as important as what the sun is doing. You can't plant crops when the ground is frozen. There are still lunar calendars today. The Moslem calendar is used by Muslims everywhere to determine the proper day on which to celebrate Islamic holy days and festivals. It is a lunar calendar having 12 lunar months in a year of about 354 days. Because this lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, Islamic holy days, although celebrated on fixed dates in their own calendar, usually shift 11 days earlier each successive solar year. On the other hand, the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar, or 'fixed lunar year' based on twelve lunar months of twenty-nine or thirty days, with an intercalary lunar month added seven times every nineteen years (once every two to three years) to synchronize the twelve lunar cycles with the slightly longer solar year. Each Jewish lunar month starts with the new moon. Although originally the new lunar crescent had to be observed and certified by witnesses, the timing of the new moon is now determined mathematically. Click here for more information about calendars used by different faiths.
The familiar January, February, March, etc. were invented by the Romans. Julius Caesar reformed their calendar so that the old 'moons' no longer corresponded with the real moon, although they were similar length. There were 12 months in a year, although of different lengths, and the new year started at the winter solstice (or in fact a few days after). The day lengths are described in this rhyme:
Thirty days has September, |
April, June, and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone,
Except for February alone
And that has twenty-eight days clear
And twenty-nine in each leap year.
Full moons fascinate people. The full moons throughout the year used to be given different names.
|Old English names for full moons|
|Season||Full Moon Name||Date Range|
This website gives similar names to the Anglo-Saxon moons, except the first and last moons of the year were After Yule Moon and Before Yule Moon.
There may, of course, be more than one full moon in a month. There is a wide-spread belief that the second full moon in a moon is called a Blue Moon, which is used in the expression once in a Blue Moon, meaning very rarely. However, Sky and Telescope denies this. It says that if there are four moons in a season, the third one is the Blue Moon. This is based on American Farmers' Almanacs from the nineteenth and twenthieth century. I suspect that the expression is an American one. In Britain, in a blue moon sometimes means never! I would disagree with the allocations of the seasons anyway. June is obviously summer, and December is winter. As for the other moon names, I have heard of Harvest moon, but it seemed to be used of any large orange full moon in the autumn. I was told that the dust from the harvest would change the colour of the moon. And a hunter's moon meant a frosty bright white moon in the winter. It's interesting that this has been brought up to date. In the second World War, a bright full moon was described as a bomber's moon. The Germans were bombing Britain at night, and a good full moon helped them to be accurate. (Everywhere was dark, as the black-out turned off or concealed all lighting.) I don't know if it was also used to describe the British bombing the Germans.
A year is the length of time for the earth to travel round the sun. The earth's axis is tilted, so unless you're near the equator, you are slightly further away from the sun during half the year, winter, than the other half, summer. The sun's rays have to travel through more atmosphere during winter, and the day length is shorter. All this makes it colder. Since it is important to plant crops at the right time of year, it is important to know when the times of the different times of the year are. It is thought that one of the functions of Stonehenge was to find out when the winter solstice was. Even today, we are very careful to make sure that each year is precisely the right length. This is not as easy as you might think. If you add up the days in the months in a year, the total is 365 days. But the true length of the year is 365¼ days. To overcome this problem, an extra day is added to the end of February every 4th year, or leap year. However, even this is not enough, since the true length of the year is slightly less than 365¼ days. So years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years, unless they are also divisible by 400, in which case they are leap years. The last year divisible by 100 was 2000, which was divisible by 400, so that was a leap year.
The day is not quite a whole multiple of seconds. The adjustment is very small, but sometimes there has to be a leap second, a second added to the year to make it the right length. This is done at midnight either at the start of the new year or half way through the year. It happened at the start of 2009. Theoretically, a second could be subtracted instead, but this hasn't happened yet.
The months keep the same whether you're north or south of the equator, even though this means that Australia has January in the middle of the summer. However, everyone wants midnight to be in the middle of the night. But as the earth turns, the middle of the night happens at different times in different places. So there are different time zones. The base time zone is GMT or Greenwich Mean Time. Greenwich Observatory is in London, on the River Thames, and 0° longitude goes through it. There are different time zones throughout the world, so if you travel far enough, you have to adjust your clock (and if you cross the date line at roughly 180°, your calendar as well). Britain is on GMT during the winter, and what we call summer time during the summer, so we have to change our clocks each spring and autumn (and complain bitterly about it every time!) The formula for changing the clocks, by the way, is "Spring forward, fall back". This is probably an American expression (since we talk about autumn rather than spring) but it still works. At one point in the 20C, Britain operated on summer time during the winter, and double summer time during the summer. People still remembered about GMT, so they called GMT God's time, the summer time was Government time, and the double summer time was Daft time!
Christmas is always on December 25th, which is just after the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year). Easter varies through the year. Here is a 'Rhyme for remembering the Date of Easter' by Justin Richardson.
No need for confusion if we but recall|
That Easter on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox doeth fall.
One point worth mentioning perhaps - the British write a date in numbers as DD/MM/YY, while the Americans write MM/DD/YY. This can sometimes be ambiguous, so if you're travelling between the cultures, watch out! Some British may not have realised that 9/11 was a date in September (and our emergency number is 999 anyway, so more confusion).
Since months were originally based on the moon, and year length on the sun, it can be difficult to reconcile the two, which explains the different month lengths of our calendar. This can make it difficult to work out how many days there are between two dates. So here is a convertor (I'm putting day before month, because I'm British, OK?):
This convertor may not always be accurate. It copes with leap years when the year is divided by 4, and knows 2000 was a leap year while 1900 wasn't (did you know that?) But other divided-by-4 non-leap years are not covered. Nor does it deal with the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar, or BC years, because that would be silly. And it may not be accurate to a day, although I hope it is! But it should tell you how many days between two dates. Roughly.
There are different ways to number years. Christians number years from the birth of Jesus (although scholars think they may be a few years out). The millennium was celebrated in 2000 throughout the world (although some people think it should have been 2001 instead) despite the existence of other year numbering systems. Click here for more information about calendars used by different faiths.The Chinese have a cycle of 12 years named after animals. The Chinese New Year starts in January or February. Here are some past and future years:
|Rat||Feb 02 1984||Feb 19 1996||Feb 07 2008||Jan 25 2020||Feb 11 2032|
|Ox||Jan 22 1985||Feb 07 1997||Jan 26 2009||Feb 12 2021||Jan 31 2033|
|Tiger||Feb 09 1986||Jan 28 1998||Feb 14 2010||Feb 01 2022||Feb 19 2034|
|Rabbit||Jan 29 1987||Feb 16 1999||Feb 03 2011||Jan 22 2023||Feb 08 2035|
|Dragon||Feb 17 1988||Feb 05 2000||Jan 23 2012||Feb 10 2024||Jan 28 2036|
|Snake||Feb 06 1989||Jan 24 2001||Feb 10 2013||Jan 29 2025||Feb 15 2037|
|Horse||Jan 27 1990||Feb 12 2002||Jan 31 2014||Feb 17 2026||Feb 04 2038|
|Goat||Feb 15 1991||Feb 01 2003||Feb 19 2015||Feb 06 2027||Jan 24 2039|
|Monkey||Feb 04 1992||Jan 22 2004||Feb 08 2016||Jan 26 2028||Feb 12 2040|
|Rooster||Jan 23 1993||Feb 09 2005||Jan 28 2017||Feb 13 2029||Feb 01 2041|
|Dog||Feb 10 1994||Jan 29 2006||Feb 16 2018||Feb 03 2030||Jan 22 2042|
|Pig||Jan 31 1995||Feb 18 2007||Feb 05 2019||Jan 23 2031||Feb 10 2043|
I seemed to have wandered some way from Imperial units! But there are now many cultures that are part of Britain, and it's interesting to find out about them.
To finish off the time section, this is from QI, a BBC light-hearted quiz about true but little known facts. (It stands for Quite Interesting.):
Which is quicker, a jiffy or two shakes?
These are actual time measurements in physics.
One shake is one step in a nuclear chain reaction, 10 billionths of a second (10 nano seconds). A typical nuclear reaction takes 50 to 100 shakes. This comes from the Manhattan project, and is dervived from the expression "two shakes of a lamb's tail."
Here are two definitions of jiffys.
A jiffy is the period of an alternating current power cycle, 1/50 or 1/60 second.
Or a jiffy is the time that light takes to travel 1 fermi (width of a proton).
The English standard for luminous intensity was candlepower. One candlepower was the light produced by a pure spermaceti candle weighing one sixth of a pound and burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour.
The SI unit is the candela. This is one of the SI base units. A candela is the luminous intensity, in a given direction, of a source that emits monochromatic radiation of frequency 540 x 1012 hertz and that has a radiant intensity in that direction of 1/683 watt per steradian.
length of double-decker bus|
area of a football pitch
volume of a swimming pool
tastes like chicken
consistency of porridge
© Jo Edkins 2009 - Return to units index