Researching the history of time after a night of not being able to sleep is quite a spookily baffling process. This is an excuse.
Essentially, it appears to boils down to superstition and coincidence.
Obviously days are the length they are because that’s how long it takes the world to spin around. But why break them up into 24 equal chunks, except for making timetabling a bit simpler.
And why not something decimal?
Well, for a start, it just wasn’t in fashion at the time these things started to become fashionable. (I just looked it up, apparently the first documented decimal system is 13th century china, and it only really started to kick off in the west in the 16th century, who knew?)
So it seems the instinct initially was to divide the day and the night into twelve hour chunks.
This must have been pretty confusing, as obviously the days and nights are different lengths throughout the year (happy solstice for yesterday, by the way). So from quite a while back (we’re looking roughly at the middle kingdom of Egypt, for the record) there’s been 24 hours in a day, but they’ve been weird lengths of time.
It took decent chronometers to actually start to average the year out.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Why 12 for day and 12 for night? (Adding up to the 24).
Well, it’s just because 12 was in fashion, as far as I can tell. Looking at tribes of Israel, signs of the Zodiac, annual lunar cycles, Battlestar Galactica and all that jazz. Basically, things happened in twelve.
And the Zodiac is actually the closest explanation. There’s something in there about stars passing through the night, and those being used to mark the divisions of the night. This was simplified to 12 divisions (for twelve stars rising in the night sky) due to the duodecimal system that was all the rage (apparently, that’s the lunar cycles again, though I personally think it’d be easier to count on fingers than full moons).
So the night was twelve hours long (kind of) and everybody loves symettry.
And this means that two times a year the hours would all add up tidily. Bless the equinoxes.
Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day.
So eventually this all got averaged out and rationalised and before you knew it everyone was doing it.
Which is kind of a big deal, because once everyone agreed on what time it was, everyone started noticing how late I was for everything.
It’s weird that something as fundamentally a part of our life, something that seems to come naturally. Just be a fundamental structure of the universe, is just an arbitrary decision by some astronomers made a thousand years ago.
Remember there’s no reason to have hours. Think about where they came from. Worry about if you should trust them.
Well, maybe don’t got that far.
But it’s worth thinking about what fundaments we rely on.
They (and I), might be wrong.
Illustration by Anna-Kaisa.