Friday 1 August 2014

Little Gnome Astronomical Fact #1

Greenwich Mean Time became the legal time on August 2nd 1880.
It actually took an act of parliament on August 2nd 1880 to define time. This Act may be cited as the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, 1880.

We take time for granted today but we actually owe our 24 hour clock to the ancient Babylonians who live around 4,000 years ago. The Babylonians worshiped 12 gods in the day and 12 at night, this meant that they divided their day into 24 parts. Their base number for counting was 60 (we use the decimal system 10) so they divided each of their 24 parts of a day into 60 smaller bits. Here is the beginning of our familiar 24 hour day with 60 minutes in an hour.

The Greeks had a great idea for measuring time; they used a container of water with a plug in it. This was to stop people arguing at meetings as to who had the longest time to talk.  People at meetings began talking when the plug was removed and could only talk while water was running out; this ensured everyone had the same length of time to speak. When the water stopped so did the speaker. Could that be used today?
Mechanical clocks were introduced in the medieval time but were not very accurate. By the beginning of the 19th century clocks were more reliable, however to work out what the time was many towns and cities had small observatories with astronomers measuring the positions of the stars and working out the time. This was called local time.

This became a very complicated affair with every town having its own local time.  There would be local Manchester time, local York time, local Birmingham time and so on. Transport was measured at the speed of a stage coach about 10 mph, time was not so important. In classic Western films the morning stage coach was on time if it arrived between sunrise and midday.

With the introduction of the railways transport speed increased and local time became very confusing with trains running on their own local time. It all came to a head at the great exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace when trains were arriving from all over the country but using their own individual times. Can you imagine what the number of time tables looked like!!

The introduction of the telegraph followed the development of the railway. As railway lines were built the telegraph system followed. Astronomers at Greenwich observed the positions of the stars worked out the time and sent this information via the telegraph system. This system came into use around 1850 and was known as ‘railway time’. It was then decided to change railway time to Greenwich Mean Time or GMT.

I would like to finish with this little riddle of time.

It’s present everywhere but occupies no space. We can measure it, but we can’t see it, touch it, get rid of it, or put it in a container. Everyone knows what it is and uses it every day, but no one has been able to define it. We can spend it, save it, waste it, or kill it, but we can’t destroy it or even change it, and there is never any more or less of it.

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