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The secret history of how we measure time

Did you know the 24-hour day is likely the result of humans counting with their fingerbones?

By Rachel Cunliffe

It will probably take you between 60 and 90 seconds to read this radio review. I know that because I just timed myself reading a previous one, using my iPhone stopwatch. For the majority of human civilisation, such a small snatch of time would have been impossible to measure: time periods were marked through seasons, tides and the movement of the sun. Early timekeeping devices, such as sundials and water clocks, could track hours, maybe minutes, but never seconds. Has our concept of time changed as our ability to measure it has become more accurate? Does how we feel about time shape how we feel about life?

In Hands of TimeRadio 4’s Book of the Week, the watchmaker Rebecca Struthers guides us through the history of timekeeping. It’s a mesmerising, almost hypnotic listen, thanks both to the spellbinding voice of its reader Phoebe Pryce and the gloriously detailed account from Struthers of her workshop and vocation. “We can measure sections of our life by these watches,” she tells us, explaining how making a watch by hand can take from six months to six years. Or you could use modern machinery, but that would destroy the magic.

Artisanal watchmaking is a “critically endangered” skill in the UK. But time, for Struthers, is worth taking time over. It’s the backdrop of our existence, the most commonly used noun in the English language. No wonder the attempt to measure and make sense of it goes back millennia – to Stonehenge, Egypt and ancient China. She explains how the 24-hour day is likely the result of humans counting with their fingerbones (eight fingers, three knuckles on each) and why we owe our 60-minute hours to the Sumerians 5,000 years ago.

Yet, however accurate timekeeping devices have become since, we still take a “storytelling” approach to measuring time in our lives: “that was just before you were born”, “the summer after my GCSEs”, “before or after Covid”. Five short episodes run throughout the week – an hour and 15 minutes in total. It’s well worth your time.

Hands of Time
BBC Radio 4; weekdays from 8 May, 9.45am

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown