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Time, a central theme in modern life, has for most of human history been thought of in very imprecise terms.

The day and the week are easily recognized and recorded - though an accurate calendar for the year is hard to achieve. The forenoon is easily distinguishable from the afternoon, provided the sun is shining, and the position of the sun in the landscape can reveal roughly how much of the day has passed. By contrast the smaller parcels of time - hours, minutes and seconds - have until recent centuries been both unmeasurable and unneeded.

Sundial and water clock: from the 2nd millennium BC

The movement of the sun through the sky makes possible a simple estimate of time, from the length and position of a shadow cast by a vertical stick. (It also makes possible more elaborate calculations, as in the attempt of Erathosthenes to measure the world - see Erathosthenes and the camels). If marks are made where the sun's shadow falls, the time of day can be recorded in a consistent manner.

The result is the sundial. An Egyptian example survives from about 800 BC, but the principle is certainly familiar to astronomers very much earlier. However it is difficult to measure time precisely on a sundial, because the sun's path throug the sky changes with the seasons. Early attempts at precision in time-keeping rely on a different principle.

The water clock, known from a Greek word as the clepsydra, attempts to measure time by the amount of water which drips from a tank. This would be a reliable form of clock if the flow of water could be perfectly controlled. In practice it cannot. The clepsydra has an honourable history from perhaps 1400 BC in Egypt, through Greece and Rome and the Arab civlizations and China, and even up to the 16th century in Europe. But it is more of a toy than a timepiece.

The hourglass, using sand on the same principle, has an even longer career. It is a standard feature on 18th-century pulpits in Britain, ensuring a sermon of sufficient length. In a reduced form it can still be found timing an egg.

A tower clock in China: 1094

After six years' work, a Buddhist monk by the name of Su Song completes a great tower, some thirty feet high, which is designed to reveal the movement of the stars and the hours of the day. Figures pop out of doors and strike bells to signify the hours.

The power comes from a water wheel occupying the lower part of the tower. Su Song has designed a device which stops the water wheel except for a brief spell, once every quarter of an hour, when the weight of the water (accumulated in vessels on the rim) is sufficient to trip a mechanism. The wheel, lurching forward, drives the machinery of the tower to the next stationary point in a continuing cycle.

This device (which in Su Sung's tower must feel like a minor earthquake every time it slams the machinery into action) is an early example of an escapement - a concept essential to mechanical clockwork. In any form of clock based on machinery, power must be delivered to the mechanism in intermittent bursts which can be precisely regulated. The rationing of power is the function of the escapement. The real birth of mechanical clockwork awaits a reliable version, developed in Europe in the 13th century.

Meanwhile Su Sung's tower clock, ready for inspection by the emperor in 1094, is destroyed shortly afterwards by marauding barbarians from the north.

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