Numerous civilizations in the past had some understanding of time, albeit imprecise. It was evident to them that daylight began when the sun ascended and nightfall when it descended beyond the horizon. However, the ancient Sumerians were astute observers of the heavens and devised a significantly more intricate framework. Through their observations, they recognized that it was feasible to divide an hour into 60 minutes and a day into 24 hours, eventually formulating the basis for contemporary time measurement systems.
The ingenuity behind the concept of time created by the Sumerians
Around 4,500 BCE, the Sumerian civilization, also known as the “land of the civilized kings,” thrived in Mesopotamia, which is now modern-day Iraq. The Sumerians established an advanced society complete with their own intricate language and writing system, remarkable architecture and art, and advanced studies of astronomy and mathematics. Although the Sumerian Empire’s rule was short-lived, their impact on the world’s concept of time spanned more than 5,000 years.
The Sumerians held a preference for the number 60, as it was easily divisible by several other numbers. The number 60 could be divided into equal parts by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30. Additionally, ancient astronomers believed that a year contained 360 days, and the number 60 perfectly fit into this figure six times over.
Ancient people and the passage of time
Most of the ancient civilizations possessed a rough understanding of the progression of time in terms of days, weeks, months, and years. A month was defined as the span of a complete lunar cycle, while a week was the duration of a phase of the lunar cycle. The length of a year was approximated by observing the changes in the seasons and the position of the sun. By gazing at the skies, the ancients were able to gain insight into topics that were deemed complex during their time.
After the decline of the Sumerian civilization, which was overpowered by the Akkadians in 2400 BCE and later by the Babylonians in 1800 BCE, each new civilization came to value the sexagesimal system created by the Sumerians and integrated it into their own mathematical frameworks. Consequently, the notion of dividing time into 60 units persisted and disseminated throughout the globe.
A round clock and a 24-hour day
The unveiling of geometry by the Greeks and Islamists brought to light a significant discovery: the number 360 not only represented the Earth’s ideal orbit but also served as the ideal measure for a circle, comprising 360 degrees. This realization further cemented the sexagesimal system’s role in history, making it an indispensable tool for mathematics and navigation. As a result, the Earth’s longitude and latitude were delineated into degrees, and the face of a circular clock was divided into precise, sexagesimal quadrants that yielded 24 hours, with each hour comprising 60 minutes and each minute containing 60 seconds.