Clocks and Astronomy

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The earliest clocks were actually the stars and heavens

Early mans best clock were the sun, the moon and the stars.  This page describes how early man used nature and the heavens as his clock.

NOW we must jump over ages so vast in duration that all of our recorded history is by comparison, the merest fragment of time. During the prehistoric period, known to us only by certain bones, drawings, and traces of tombs and dwellings, and by a few rude implements weapons, and ornaments, we must think of the human family as developing very, very slowly--groping in the dawn of civilization while it ate and slept, hunted, and fought, and, gradually spread over various regions of the earth.

It was in this interval, also, that man learned the use of fire and the fashioning of various tools. His club gave place to the spear, the knife, and the arrow-head weapons that were made at first by chipping flakes of flint to a sharp edge. Then, as his knowledge and skill slowly increased, he learned to work the softer metals and made his weapons and his tools of bronze. Meanwhile, he was taught, by observing in nature, to tame and to breed animals for his food and use, and to plant near home what crops he wished to reap, instead of seeking them where they grew in a wild state. Thus, he became a herdsman and farmer.

He no longer lived in caves or rude huts, but in a low, flat-roofed house built of heavy, rough stone, and, later, of stones hewn into shape or of bricks baked in the burning sunshine. Stone and clay carved or molded into images, and the colored earth, smeared into designs upon his walls, gave him the beginnings of art. And from drawing rude pictures of simple objects, as a child begins to draw even before knowing what it means to write, primitive man came at last to the greatest power of all--the art of writing.

Through all this age man continued to regulate his expanding affairs by the timepieces of the sky--the sun, the moon, and the stars. He divided time roughly into days and parts of days, into nights and watches of the night, into moons and seasons--determining the latter probably by the migration of birds, the budding of trees and flowers, the falling of leaves and other happenings in nature. But never guessing how greatly interested future generations would be in the way he did things, he has left only a few records of his activities and these have been preserved by the merest accident. The historian and the press-agent were the inventions of later days.

Thus we come down the ages to a date about 4000 B. C. at the very beginning of recorded history, and to one of the most ancient civilizations in the world--that of the region which we now call Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia lies in southwestern Asia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and not far from the traditional site of the Garden of Eden. The name by which we know it comes from the Greek, and means, "The land between the rivers" but the people who dwelt there at the time to which we refer called it the "Land of Shinar."

This is the region in which long afterward--so the Bible tells us--Abraham left his native town, Ur of the Chaldees, to make his pioneer journey to Palestine. This is the land where the great cities of Babylon and Nineveh afterward arose; Babylon, where Daniel interpreted the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, and Nineveh, whence the Assyrians, the fierce conquerors of the ancient world, "came down like a wolf on the fold" against the peaceful Kingdom of Judah. It is the land where, thousands of years later, the famous Arab capital of Bagdad was built; it is the land of Harun al Raschid and the "Arabian Nights," and the land which the British Army conquered in a remarkable campaign against the Turks and Germans. Mesopotamia is a land of color, brilliant life, wonders and romance. Many students and statesmen believe that it will, in days to come, grow fruitful and populous again, that it will once more be great among the countries of the earth. It is a flat region, with wide-stretching plains. For the most part, there are no hills to limit the view of the skies, and the heavens are brilliant upon starry nights.

In this favored portion of the earth, a high civilization had already been developed in the very earliest days of which we have authentic historic record. The caveman type had long disappeared and had been forgotten; people were already living in well-built cities of brick and stone. Their houses were low and flat-roofed, but the cities were surrounded with high and massive walls to protect them from enemies, and here and there within rose great square towers which were also temples. Perhaps the famous Tower of Babel was one of these, for Babel, of course, is another name for Babylon, and its people are known to have worshipped on the tops of towers, as if, by so doing, they could reach nearer to their gods. The ancient Chaldeans were religious by nature, and because the skies contained the greatest things of which they knew, they identified many of their gods with the sun, the moon, and the stars, and they worshipped these in their temples.

Thus, the sun was the god Shamash, the moon was Sin, Jupiter was Marduk, Venus was Ishtar, Mars was Nergal, Mercury was Nebo, and Saturn was Ninib.

In consequence, their priests came to give much of their time to a study of the movements of the stars. These priests, who were shrewd and learned men, discovered a great deal, but they kept their knowledge closely within the circle of their caste. Learning was not for everyone in those days because the priests posed as magicians able to interpret dreams, to explain signs, and to foretell the future. This brought them much revenue; as prophets they were not unmindful of profits.

When we consider that these astrologer-astronomers did not have telescopes or our other modern instruments, it is marvelous to see how many of the laws of the heavenly bodies they really did find out for themselves. Books could be filled, with the story of their discoveries. For example, they observed that the sun slowly changed the points at which it rose and set. During certain months, the place of sunrise traveled northward, and at the same time the sun rose higher in the sky, and at noon was more nearly overhead. At this time, the days were also longer, because the sun was above the horizon more of the time, and then it was summer. During certain other months, the sun traveled south again, and all these conditions were reversed; the days grew shorter and shorter, and it was winter. This is, of course, exactly what the sun appears to do here and now, and we may observe it for ourselves. But these Babylonian priests were the first to study these phenomena and accomplish something by applying their reasoning powers to the facts that presented themselves. They took the time which was consumed in this motion from the furthest north to the furthest south and return, and from that worked out their year.

In order to calculate time, they next devised the zodiac, a sort of belt encircling the heavens and showing the course of the sun, and the location of twelve constellations, or groups of stars, through which he would be seen to pass if his light did not blot out theirs. They divided the region of these twelve constellations into the same number of equal parts; consequently, the sun passing from any given point around the heavens to the same point, occupied in so doing an amount of time that was arbitrarily divided into twelfths.

But they also devised another twelve-part division of the year. They noticed that the moon went through her phases, from full moon to full moon in about thirty days. So one moon, or one month, corresponded with the passage of the sun through one "sign" of the zodiac. Our own word "month" might have been written "moonth," since that is its meaning. That gave them a year of twelve months, each month having thirty days, or three hundred and sixty days in all.

Then from the seven heavenly bodies which they had identified with seven great gods, they got the idea of a week of seven days, one day for the special worship of each god and named for him.

In like manner, they divided the day and the night each into twelve hours; and the hour into sixty minutes and these again into sixty seconds. The choice of "sixty" was not a chance shot or accident; it was carefully selected for practical reasons since these old astronomers were wise and level-headed men. No lower number can be divided by so many other numbers as can sixty. Just look at your watch for a moment and notice how simply and naturally the minutes, divided into fives, fit into place between the figures for the hours, and, because sixty divides evenly by fifteen and thirty, we have quarter-hours and half-hours.

Therefore, we should realize, with a bit of gratitude, that we owe these divisions of time, of which we still make use, to the ancient magician-priests of Babylon and Chaldea, thousands and thousands of years ago.

In doing all this, these early scientists developed at the same time an elaborate system of so-called "magic" by which they pretended to foretell future events and the destinies of men born on certain days. This was an important part of their priestcraft, and probably it was not the least profitable part. In fact, the priests called themselves magi, meaning "wise men" in their language, and our word "magic" is derived from "magi."

This magic, or prophetic study of the stars, we call astrology to distinguish it from the true science of astronomy. But mingled with it all, these priests possessed a wonderful amount of genuine scientific knowledge. Their year of three hundred and sixty days was, of course, five days too short, as they presently found out for themselves. In six years, the difference would amount to thirty days, which was exactly the length of one of their months. So they corrected the calendar very easily by doubling the month Adar once in six years. Thus, every sixth year contained thirteen months instead of twelve; that was the origin of the leap-year principle which we still use, although more accurately. It can be seen that, with all their superstition and their befooling of other people, the priests themselves were by no means ignorant; they were really keen observers.

This calendar, by which we still measure the years and the seasons, is so interesting a thing that it is worth while to pause for a moment in our story in order to trace out its later development. The Babylonian calendar remained practically the same up to the time of Julius Caesar, only a few years before the Christian Epoch. The names of the months had naturally been changed into the Latin language; and the Romans, instead of doubling a whole month, had come to add the extra five days to several months, one day to each. That is the reason for some of our months having thirty-one days.

When Caesar was Dictator of Rome, it had become known that the year of exactly 365 days was still a little too short. It should have been 365 1/4. So Caesar in reforming the calendar, provided that the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh months should be given thirty-one days each, and that the others should have thirty days, except in the case of February which should have its thirtieth day only once in four years. A little later, his successor, the Emperor Augustus, after whom the month of August is named, decided that his month must be as long as July, which was Julius Caesar's month. Therefore, he stole a day from February and added one to August; then he changed the following months by making September and November thirty-day months and giving thirty-one days to October and December.

The Julian calendar, with these changes by Augustus, remained in use until the year A. D. 1582, nearly a century after the discovery of America. Then it was learned that the average year of 365 1/4 days was still not exactly right according to the motion of the earth around the sun. The exact time is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds, being 11 minutes and 14 seconds less than 365 1/4 days. When, therefore, we add a day to the year every four years, as Caesar commanded, we are really adding too much. This excess was corrected by Pope Gregory XII in 1582, when he changed the calendar so that the last year of a century should be a leap-year only when its number could be divided evenly by 400. Thus, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap-years, though the year 2000 will be. This new calendar, which is the one now generally in use in most of the world, is known as the Gregorian calendar.

Thus the plan and principle of the calendar, as well as our smaller divisions of time, in spite of the small changes by Caesar and Gregory, have remained from the Babylonian days down to the present; and we have done nothing to their system in all these thousands of years, except, incidentally to correct it.

Only once in history have the measures of the ancient calendar been set aside. That was in France at the time of the Revolution, when the French people, in their passionate hatred of all the traditional things that reminded them of their past sufferings, invented a new calendar, in which they changed the names of months and days, and counted the years from 1792, the first of their liberty. They also abolished all Sundays and religious festivals, and divided the day into ten hours. This played havoc with time-keeping, and caused great confusion. Watches and clocks were made with one circle of numbers for the new hours, and another, within, on which were shown the old hours which people could understand. But this complication lasted only a few years, for the traditional system was soon restored.

To return again to the era of the first calendar. While the wise men of Mesopotamia were engaged in mingling science and mystery, another civilization, the Egyptian, was developing upon the banks of the Nile and passing through much of the same stages. In due course the Persians conquered both Mesopotamia and Egypt and absorbed their knowledge. Still later the wonderful Greek nation combined astronomy with mathematics in a way which makes us wonder to this day. This is the way in which civilization has grown. Race after race, during century after century has added its new knowledge and discoveries to that which has been learned before. It is interesting to note that the astronomy of the Babylonians appears to have been paralleled independently by other ancient civilizations between which there was no apparent possibility of intercourse. The Chinese in the East and the Aztecs of Mexico, on the other side of the world, invented practically the same astronomical instruments as the Babylonians and made similar discoveries. All methods of indicating time have been steps upon the long road which has led to the making of modern timepieces.

The progressive Greeks did not permit knowledge to be monopolized by the priesthood and probably their common people knew more about the stars than most of the population of America do to this day. Sailors possessed no compasses, but they voyaged very skilfully with the guidance of the stars, while farmers, lacking our modern weather-reports and crop-bulletins, learned to govern their planting and harvesting by the positions of the heavenly bodies.

In one sense, this is time-telling and in another it is not, but our ideas of time and astronomy have always been so closely associated that it is hard to think of one apart from the other. This is because the movements of the earth, which produce night and day and the changes of the seasons, are our supreme court of time, our final standard for its measurement. And since we cannot see the earth move, we judge of its motion by the apparent movement of the heavenly bodies, just as we realize the movement of a train by watching the landscape rush past us as we go.

Some of the great Greek scientists, by the way, had even learned to foretell eclipses of the sun. According to Herodotus the one which occurred on May 28th, in the year 585 B. C., was predicted by Thales of Miletus, one of the famous "Seven Wise Men." This event was also celebrated because of another interesting association; it stopped a battle between the armies of the Medes and the Lydians. Perhaps we can guess at what happened. Undoubtedly the eclipse was interpreted by the armies as a sign of divine anger, for the ancients identified many of the forces and objects of nature as gods, and Phoebus Apollo, who it was believed daily drove his flaming chariot across the sky, was the great divinity of the sun. Furthermore, these gods were very apt to meddle with happenings upon the earth, particularly with wars, as anyone who has read the "Iliad" will recall.

Imagine, then, the two armies about to go to battle when suddenly something appeared to go wrong with the sun. There to their amazement, in a cloudless sky, a dimming shadow touched the edge of the sun's shining disk and began slowly to blot it out. The warriors forgot to fight each other and stared in terror at the sky. The sun dwindled to a crescent; a weird twilight fell upon the earth. Finally, the last thread of brightness disappeared leaving a dull circle in the sky, surrounded by faint bands of light. The gloom of night fell upon the ground. Birds and animals went to their rest.

No further evidence was needed by the superstitious and frightened soldiers. It must be true that Phoebus Apollo was grievously angered, and they forthwith laid down their arms. The sun god, of course, soon showed his approval of this action by coming back into the sky.

This is only one of many tales which might be told to show the state of superstition in those days. Learning, then, was confined to the few, and in many instances was used to mystify or terrorize the mass of the people and thus keep them submissive. At best, new ideas were slow to grow or to be believed.

For example, Pythagorus, the great Greek philosopher of the sixth century B. C., believed the earth to be a globe, but it was not until Columbus discovered America--twenty centuries later--that people generally began to know that it was not flat. Even in these modern days of the public school, the press, the telephone, the telegraph, the wireless and other means for the wide-spread distribution of knowledge, how slowly does truth find its way to acceptance! To this day, superstition is by no means dead.

Even Mark Twain, who scoffed at superstition all his life, often said that, as he came into the world with Halley's Comet, in the year 1835, so he expected to die in 1910, the year of the comet's next appearance. Strangely enough, his half-jesting prophecy was fulfilled, for he really did die in that year.

Astronomers to-day can figure out in advance what is to happen in the heavens with an exactness which would have seemed magical in olden times, and is hardly less astonishing even now. Their power is largely due to improved scientific instruments, proficiency in mathematics and greater accuracy in the measurement of time. Not only is the date of an eclipse of the sun now known in advance, but so also is the exact path of the shadow across the world, and the instant of its appearance in any given place.

We now have glanced briefly at a few of the features of early humanity's dependence upon the clocks of nature and the way in which they influenced its manner of life. We still depend upon these great primeval timepieces and we do it for the most part unconsciously, for our master clocks must still be set by the motion of the heavenly bodies.

That motion, which now we know to be really the revolution of our earth, is still the legislator and supreme court of time. But we have learned to make and carry everywhere a wonderful machine, whose revolving wheels and pointing hands keep tryst with the stars in the heavens and move to the rhythm of wheeling worlds. And so familiar is this talisman of man's making, that we forget to look beyond it or think of time at all save as the position of the hands upon the dial.

We carry with us carelessly a toy which tells tales upon the solar system--our watch is a pocket universe.

 


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