In ye olde times, before Siri, how did people tell time?


When people say we’re in a digital age what they mean is we have smartphones, computers and talking microwaves (‘Dinner for one again, Sam?’). All the usual signs of modern, exciting living. The biggest sign of this digital age though might be that we have digitised time. (OK, it's not, but this article’s theme is ‘Time’ so just go with it.) What do smartphones, computers, and sarcastic microwaves have in common? They all tell time digitally. Time, always elusive, has become ephemeral. It’s 0’s and 1’s. It’s electrons. It's an idea.



Go back a few hundred years and time was analog. People determined time in physical, practical ways. Take a candle, mark it 12 times, and you have candlemarks - “The food will be ready in 2 candlemarks. I’ll be back from the forest in 6 candlemarks. I’ll be making candles for the next candlemark.''



Candles were a bright idea, but there was always the danger that they would go out. An even better idea was an hourglass. An elegantly simple way to monitor the passing of time. There is something hypnotic about the sand falling from the top to the bottom chamber, almost changing from one state of being into another.




Beyond simply measuring the time an hourglass challenges you, makes you question yourself. ‘’The sand will fall whatever I do, so how did I spend the time? Was it a good use of my time? Didn't that guy say he’d back from the forest in 6 candlemarks?’’
Don't get me wrong, digital time is convenient. I take my smartphone with me everywhere but I can’t take an hourglass to the gym (Mostly because they won’t let me bring it in. Any more.) The problem with digital time is that it can seem bigger than you. Alarms announce themselves and order you out of bed. Appointments show up unannounced in your online calendar. Digital time seems to rob you of power.



An hourglass gives you your power back. It takes something abstract and makes it concrete. Now you can hold time in the palm of your hands. You control what you do with it. You can set yourself goals and measure your progress towards them. An hourglass helps you understand something very important - you can do anything you want to do. You have time on your side.