Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Keeping Time

"Clockmakers are trying to make a wheel which will
make one complete revolution' in each day,
but that 'they cannot quite perfect their work."

Robert the Englishman, 1271

Time is the most precious resource we have. Since the beginning, people have been reckoning time with such elements as the sun, moon, stars, seasons, tides, sand, water, candles, gears, springs, pendulums, quartz, atoms, electricity, and computers. 

Over the past few centuries there have been several reliable methods invented for keeping time. By the end of the Middle Ages men were attempting to perfect the measurement of time and make such timekeeping devices available for domestic use. 

The first spring work clocks were miniature versions of a cathedral clock. In Nuremberg, about 1500, a small (3 inch diameter) "egg" watch was designed to hang by a ribbon around the neck. The earliest watches were admired more as jewelry than for their ability to keep accurate time. Cylindrical drum-watches were manufactured as a table clock or to carry in a purse. These later develop into a slimmer version of a pocket watch. Watches weren't widely worn in pockets until the 17th century, with the purpose of keeping them safe from the elements. While pocket watches were used by men, wristwatches were worn by women. One of the earliest references to an "arm watch" is that of a gift to Queen Elizabeth I.

During the 1600s, Christian Huygens developed work on the pendulum clock which was fitted into a long-case (grandfather) clock. Until the 1930's, pendulum clocks were the most accurate method for appointing time. In the early 18th century, John Harrison invented the "sea clock. This chronometer was the first accurate method to calibrate time at sea and enabled sailors to find longitude. His nautical instrument has saved the countless lives of seafarers since. Invented in 1829, a "time ball" helped sinc chronometers with the precise time. Ships would anchor in the River Thames at Greenwich and wait for the ball at the Royal Observatory to drop at precisely 1 p.m.. This practice ultimately established the adoption of Greenwich Mean Time as an international standard. These painted wood or metal time balls soon became featured in ports across the world to help keep accurate time for navigators. The general public also relied on the time ball and did so until the advent of radio. The ball would drop at 1 p.m. around the world, and at noon in the United States. A time ball is dropped on New Year's Eve to mark the first moment of the new year in 1907 thanks to the owner of the New York Times who wanted to make a lasting impression. It worked!

Candle Clock
References to time are often found in literature in the use of quaint expressions. For historical writers, it is important to be aware of the timeline of usage for time idioms.

Just a minute - a short period of time, not necessarily equating to an actual minute. More precisely rendered "Just a moment."

At the moment - At that particular instant of time. At least by 1400.

In an instant - something that happens rapidly or within an infinitesimal space of time. Also, "in a jiffy" (circa 1770, uncertain origin).

In a trice - in a single moment, without delay. A "trice" is defined as "at a single pull" of the windlass, a nautical instrument. Used figuratively since 16th century.

In a flash - Alludes to a flash of lightning. Used since about 1800.

Just a second - The second, the second division of time in an hour (the first being a minute). Used since the end of the 18th century.

Spur of the moment - All of a sudden, suddenly. Late 1700s.

In due course - In the proper or natural order of events; eventually. Used by Chaucer in the 1399.

You all know that in the due course of time
If you continue scratching on a stone,
Little by little some image thereon
Will he engraven.
Geoffrey Chaucer

All in good time - Be patient, it will eventually come to pass. May come earlier than expected. Late 1500s.

No time like the present - Do what you are supposed to do now. From Delarivier Manley's The Lost Lover (c. 1696)

Sands of time - Relates to the passing of time as reckoned with an hourglass.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time
~ From A Psalm of Life,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The time is ripe -The most favorable time to do something. May have been invented by Shakespeare in 1597.
Letters shall direct your course when time is ripe.
~ William Shakespeare, Henry IV play

In broad daylight - Clearly visible, in the open light of day. First appeared in 1579, although the term "broad day" was used in 1393.

Against time - Or "against the clock" denotes one who is in a great hurry or going as fast as possible. Its earliest use was in the mid-20th century.

On borrowed time - Not likely to be active or working much longer. Not used until about 1895.

Like clockwork - With extreme regularity. Refers to the mechanical and regular action of the clock. Used since the second half of the 1600s.


Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.

Time and tide wait for no man.
Geoffrey Chaucer
 Lost time is never found again.
Benjamin Franklin

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.
Nathaniel Hawthorne

We must use time wisely and forever realize
that the time is always ripe to do right.
Nelson Mandela
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
Ecclesiastes 3:1

He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Ecclesiastes 3:11

Do you have a favorite time idiom that you use or a special timekeeping device?

Pattern for Romance (Abingdon) 
Now on Audible (Listen to sample)

Honour Metcalf’s quilting needlework is admired by a wealthy customer of the Boston Mantua-maker for whom she works. In need of increasing her earnings, she agrees to create an elaborate white work bridal quilt for the dowager’s niece. A beautiful design emerges as she carefully stitches the intricate patterns and she begins to dream of fashioning a wedding quilt of her own.

New Englander Carla Olson Gade writes from her home amidst the rustic landscapes of Maine. With seven books in print, she enjoys bringing her tales to life with historically authentic settings and characters. An avid reader, amateur genealogist, photographer, and house plan hobbyist, Carla's great love (next to her family) is historical research. Though you might find her tromping around an abandoned homestead, an old fort, or interviewing a docent at an historical museum, it's easier to connect with her online at carlagade.com.




  1. Great post Carla. I love to use "In God's time" which reminds myself to have patience to follow His plans for me. Your images reminded me a pocket watch I used to carry around but have since lost it. I love those things!

  2. I enjoyed the time idioms, the picture of the 3 pocket watches and the candle clock. My timepiece of choice is my iPhone. I stopped wearing my watch a couple years ago when my mom's watch broke and I gave her mine. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. This is a terrific post, Carla. Thank you so much. We have Jerry's grandfather's "grandfather" clock and it still keeps time.

  4. Didn't have time to check this out yesterday. I love old clocks. I have a Banjo clock that was my grandmother's and it still works. Hanging on the wall in my den. We visited a clock museum in Connecticut when we went to New England. Interesting info about the idioms and how long they've been around.

  5. Probably the one I use the most is remarking how time flies!
    Cool post with lots of information I didn't know. I enjoyed
    the pictures of old-fashioned pocket watches and clock faces.

    I find it fascinating that God created linear time for us,
    since He lives outside the bounds of time. It is a precious resource!

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