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In Our Time: The Measurement of Time

Friday 30 March 2012, 17:08

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg

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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Measurement of Time. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - EMcN.


I'm dictating this quite late at night after a heavy day in the sun in London. I have seen people stripped nearly naked, lying on the grass in London parks, welcoming the sun like sprites in Ibiza. I have seen people looking tempted at the waters of St James's Park and feared that they might plunge in.

The Measurement of Time

St James's Park was a strange experience today. I have never seen it so crowded. Literally scores of groups, mostly of children. They were encamped almost in regiments. They could have been a miniature medieval army who had amassed in St James's Park just before they took on Parliament, which could be clearly seen in the near distance. But despite the utter crowdedness, the total and charming inability of French children to proceed forward in a crocodile line and their insistence on advancing in a mass as if they were about to storm the Bastille; despite the fact that almost every blade of grass was occupied by largely foreign youth and the green and white deckchairs were fully spoken for, and the rather Swiss-looking wooden restaurant was heaving and creaking with custom, and two pelicans had caused a traffic jam by coming out of the lake and onto a path and entranced everybody by using their long bills to clean their already snow-white feathers, I felt completely comfortable. Yes, there was a crowd, but I was a part of the crowd. And this was a crowd at ease with itself. Nobody was rushing or pushing or irritated or anxious. Perhaps it was the sun. Perhaps it was a holiday. Perhaps everybody, for that moment, felt pretty well-off. I must say that after a couple of glasses of cheap Argentinean wine I felt pretty well-off myself.

Back to the programme. Three things afterwards. For a change there was something that I felt that I had not said and that was had the number 60 come from a notion which the Babylonians had got from a healthy heartbeat of 60 beats to the minute? I didn't want to raise it because mathematics seemed to be so superior to biology at that point. But I would have enjoyed what Kristen Lippincott had to say about it. I think it was Jim Bennett who pointed out that clocks in portraiture replaced the horse as the mark of a man who wanted to seem distinguished. They represented discipline and temperance and a regular life and intellect. The session after the programme was most enlivened by Jonathan Betts giving an extended aria of quotation from a great chronometer maker who thought that chronometer makers were the greatest craftsmen, nay artists, nay individuals, who had ever lived. A sound bite it wasn't and, to be honest, I was glad that it hadn't come out on the programme. But as an exhibition in memory and as a demonstration of the way in which many of us like to elevate what we do to the top of the human tree, it was stunning.

I seem to be running out of Ingrid's patience. It was a very full day. After all, I had to go and get my eyes re-examined, I had a haircut, I went for a drink with my son, I went shopping, and I went to an induction course at the BBC who told me how to do all sorts of things that I wish they'd told me 51 years ago and then I would be alive and talking to you now.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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    Comment number 1.

    Leibnitz thought, unlike Newton, time and space were relative.In Newton’s system Time was an absolute.We use time to map the heavens:we don’t know how far the stars are,only at what time they pass across our line of sight.The mariner’s world called for the perfection of two instruments: telescopes and clocks.1st the improvements in telescopes,centred in the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.The sailor trying to fix his position-
    longitude and latitude-off a remote shore from now on would compare his readings of the stars with those at Greenwich.Greenwich became the fixed mark in every sailor’s storm-tossed world:the meridian andGMT.Harrison’s clock was able to go to sea and proved accurate to half a degree on a voyage of 6 week.

    An essential aid to fixing a position was the improvement of the clock.The clock became the symbol and central problem of the age,because Newton’s theories were only practical at sea if a clock could be made to keep time a on a ship.Since the sun rounds the earth in 24 hours,each of the 360 degrees of longitude occupies 4 minutes of time.Comparing noon on the ship(highest position of sun) with noon on a clock that keeps Greenwich time.

    The sailor knows that every 4 minutes of difference places him 1 degree further away from the Greenwich meridian.In the Middle Ages the early clock-makers wanted,not to know the time of day,but to reproduce the motions of the starry heavens. Taking up your Newlsetter theme, the clock-makers of Harrison’s time were aristocrats among workmen as the master-masons had been in the Middle Ages.The clock had since the Middle Ages fired the skill of the craftsmen in a leisurely way.

    Time is a concept for the measurement of motion of the heavenly bodies and the intervals between events.Time is what clocks measure.Clock comes from a word for bell as in monasteries the hours alone would be sounded for prayer.We use time to place events in sequence and to compare how long they last.’Endurance is all’(King Lear).

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    Comment number 2.

    I don't think your question makes sense, Melvin. The length of a minute had first to be defined (as a fraction of an hour which is a fraction of a day) before anything could be measured against it!

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    Comment number 3.

    I really looked forward to this programme. I have been interested in timekeeping and clock/watch making for many years. However, I had hoped that after discussing the topic about quartz clocks and the detrimental effect this had on mechanical timepieces Melvyn would have brought the late Dr George Daniels into the discussion.
    Dr Daniels was a watchmaker of some repute, in fact many would say that he was the finest watchmaker to have graced the earth. Heas awarded the MBE for his contribution to Horolgy. He died late last year. He made 37 fine watches and during his time as a watchmaker he devised two new escapements, the co-axial and the independent double-wheel. Dr Daniels strived to make a mechanical timepiece compete with quartz clocks.
    I think he should have had a mention in the otherwise fine programme.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thank you for a very interesting programme.

    You may be interested to know that timekeeping technology is moving beyond quartz, because of the space the crystal and its surrounding circuitry take up, to alternatives such as all-silicon oscillators (http://eandt.theiet.org/news/2012/mar/eosemi-silicon.cfm) and micro-electromechanical oscillators (http://eandt.theiet.org/magazine/2008/12/killing-time.cfm).

    I was particularly interested in the part of the programme relating to the heyday of clock and watch making in London. I have been trying to discover more about this because I have a fusee pocket watch with the mark "Kover London" on it that I believe was manufactured in the first half of the 18th century. I've been told, however, that it is likely that Kover was probably a brand name rather than a real watchmaker's name. The "Kover London" mark on my watch is on a separable part of the face so this could be an early example of badge engineering. It appears that watches were assembled from components manufactured by home workers - each worker specialising on a single type of component. How about a programme on this early home-based manufacturing industry?

    I've started a blog (http://kover-london.blogspot.co.uk/) to record the results of my investigations and to try and find others who have Kover watches or more knowledge than I have about them and the industry.

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    Comment number 5.

    This was a really interesting programme on time. Sundials were briefly mentioned, how about a whole programme on them. There are many guest you could have, such as Simon Schaffer or Dr Frank King who was on radio 2 and Pick of the Week last week. He gave an amazing 3 minutes on sundials. They have such a long and facinating history.


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