A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time (december 2015)


“What time is it?” we often ask ourselves. Watchmakers are doing their utmost to help us answer this question by producing the most accurate watches possible. But the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is rather, ‘What is time?’

The physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking is convinced of it: time did not exist before the Big Bang, i.e. before the moment at which the creation of the universe began. In the 5th century, Saint Augustin, however, was a little less sure of himself: ‘What is time? When no one asks me, I know. As soon as I must explain it, I no longer do.’ Perhaps he ought to have read the writings of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who, during Antiquity, proposed a particularly original theory. According to him, there were three times: the present (i.e. the time at which you are reading these words), the present of the past (your memory) and the present of the future (what your imagination hopes for).

When it comes down to it, past, present and future are much easier to understand in the simple domain of grammar!

But what if time were just a construct created by man to plot nature, which itself runs to its own clock? It was most likely in order to guarantee survival that our distant ancestors had need of temporal waymarkers. Knowing the seasons of animal migration would have been vital for the first human beings, who survived only by hunting.

Then, when man became farmer, he had to work according to periods of rain and draught, cold and heat — in other words, the seasons. Moreover, in order to organize ourselves, we need something reliable on which to base our plans. To position ourselves in time and have the information we need, a great many devices of greater and lesser elaborateness have been used: shadow clocks, first used 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians, sun dials, clepsydras, incense or candle clocks, hourglasses… In 1275, the very first mechanical clock appeared. Without dials or hands, it was made only to approximately sound the hours. In the Middle Ages, clocks became considerably more modern with the addition of an hour hand. In this age, was there really any need to know more? The appearance of a minute hand, and, much later, a hand to tick off the seconds, could legitimately be seen as the birth of complications.

Then, in 1504, came the very first watch. Nowadays, the most inventive minds are striving to improve the measurement of time and the various subdivisions of it which man has created: chronograph, perpetual calendar, moon phases, minute repeater, date, power reserve indicator, equation of time, dual time zone, world time…

Plotinus, Saint Augustin, Einstein and Hawking, be assured: the search continues. The best watchmakers, and in particular those exhibited in the EKSO Watches Gallery, are dedicating all their space-time to it!

Ekaterina Sotnikova

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