Cover Image: A Brief History of Timekeeping

A Brief History of Timekeeping

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A copy of my review of this book appeared in the January American Essence Magazine. Licensing restrictions prevented me from reproducing it here until now. It is reproduced in full below:

“A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks,” by Chad Orzel, Ben Bella Books, January 2022.
Time flies. However badly we want to keep time, it slips through our fingers. The word timekeeping is paradoxical. We cannot physically possess time. Rather timekeeping means measuring time, a commodity we cannot hang onto. 
“A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks,” by Chad Orzel, measures our effort to keep time. The book spans both time and space in its coverage of timekeeping –literally as well as figuratively. 
Orzel starts at the beginning of timekeeping, an opening chapter on prehistoric calendar-clocks. Stonehenge is the best known of these, a Neolithic calendar. Orzel opens examining a less known example: a man-made barrow at Newgrange near Ireland’s River Boyne. Built an estimated 5200 years ago, it is aligned so the buried chamber is illuminated once a year at the winter solstice by the rising sun. It may be the world’s oldest surviving timepiece. 
He ends with a chapter on today’s latest, greatest clocks. He describes aluminum-ion clocks  so accurate that if started today and kept running they would be accurate to within a second or two at the heat-death of the Universe without resetting them.
In between, he touches on virtually every aspect of timekeeping, calendars, water clocks, mechanical clocks, the quartz crystal timepiece that democratized accurate timekeeping, and cesium atomic clocks used as the official time standard today. He also shows how astronomy, physics, mechanics, geography and chemistry intersect with timekeeping. 
Orzel breaks things down in language an everyday reader can grasp. You come away from the book understanding how devices as simple as a water clock or as complex as a cesium atomic clock work. He explains the strengths and limitations of each type of timepiece. 
He also shows how inaccuracies built into different types of clocks led to a better understanding of how the universe works. Differences between pendulum clocks in Europe and near the Equator led to discoveries about gravity and the Earth’s shape. It is a human story, too, presenting a colorful array of individuals who advanced the art of timekeeping. 
“A Brief History of Timekeeping” is one of those rare books that is as informative as it is entertaining. Orzel, a physics professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY is an academic who has mastered the art of making science approachable. The result is a book which breaks down a complex topic in an approachable and fascinating tale.
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What time is it? Our civilization has certainly come a long way in its efforts to answer that question accurately. It’s bene quite a journey.
I love history. In fiction of nonfiction. I’m also a fan of object histories as in histories told through objects, and I was kind of hoping this book would be something like that – a history of the world told through famous clocks or clock-related inventions. Alas, it turned out to be something more along the lines of the physics and science of time itself.
Which is fine, but to be honest was kind of a stretch for my nonscientific brain at times. I mean, this book gave my brain a very vigorous workout and I appreciate it, but it wasn’t what one might call and easy or conventionally enjoyable read the way pop science strives to be.
This isn’t pop, this is SCIENCE science. Physics on top of physics with math and trigonometry thrown in and then some.
Not in every chapter, mind you. The earlier ones were delightful accounts of ancient history’s best efforts to know what time it is. From water clocks to sundials and more. That sort of thing is of great interest to me. Then we got closer to now and the author (who is no stranger to books on physics) went into the details. To his credit, he does his best to explain things in an accessible manner, but it still kind of feels like a class. A very long class.
So, guess the overall impression if that of a smart well-written book that didn’t quite meet my expectations as a reader but did educate me a great deal and put the grey matter through some paces. If the subject is of interest to you, this book will do a great job of teaching you more. Just get ready to use your best sciencey brain. Thanks Netgalley.
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It was an interesting book that provided an insightful amount of information. I was interested throughout though it took me a good minute to get into it. Once I got going I couldn’t stop.
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Not so sure about the brief part of this title. Aside from that, A Brief History of Timekeeping: The Science of Marking Time, from Stonehenge to Atomic Clocks indeed covers quite the range of timekeeping science and history—and you all know how much I love science books, and how much I love history books, so in case it isn’t clear, science history books are absolutely some of my favourite non-fiction. Applying to read this eARC from NetGalley and BenBella books was a no-brainer for me.

Chad Orzel, physicist and science writer, leads us through the progressive history of timekeeping technology and the accompanying social constructions of time. This is the thesis of the book, namely that our socially constructed temporal needs drove the search for increasingly precise timekeeping, which in turn influenced our conception of time. This feedback loop led us from Neolithic tracking of the changing seasons to marine chronometers, quartz watches, and atomic clocks that keep time down to the picosecond. Orzel both explicates the physical qualities of timekeeping methods and explores the people and processes involved in inventing or discovering these methods.

Some of the scientific explanations here can get quite intense. The book tries to separate the most intense and detailed parts of these explanations into sidebars (not that sidebars really … work … in an ebook). Nevertheless, even in the main part of the text, Orzel is assuming a fair amount of high school physics knowledge. I don’t think this is a downside, and even if, like me, a lot of that knowledge has atrophied for you, you will still be able to understand the gist of what Orzel is saying. Nevertheless, his explanations overall have reminded me of the sheer brilliance of the scientific method. The world we inhabit today exists not from the brilliance of individuals making profound leaps but rather from the persistence of experimenters, of craftspeople, of engineers and designers. The history of timekeeping is an iterative history, and when you think of it, so much of our technology is like that.

As far as the history goes, I think there’s something in here that will be new for almost everyone. You might be familiar with a couple of the events Orzel mentions—for example, he covers John Harrison’s efforts to win the Admiralty Board’s Longitude Prize (and comes for my girl Dava Sobel’s version of the story in the process!), and this was something I’ve read about before. But I really liked his exploration of the intricate mathematical efforts of first-millennium CE monks to line up and fix the calendars. Again, I keep thinking about our modern society’s dependence on computers for speedy, complex calculations. In actuality, up until recently, any kind of complex calculation would take someone hours or even days, let alone the time needed for double-checking.

This is part of the charm and power of A Brief History of Timekeeping. Like many a good science history, it helps me marvel in the wondrous nature of human innovation and inquiry. We went from hunting and gathering to agricultural revolutions all the way up to harnessing the power of the atom in order to measure our ever-changing definition of time … that’s just … wow. Yeah, this is a bit of a long read for something brief, but Orzel tells it well and in a way that makes every page worth it.
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Do you like Doctor Who and other hard science fiction that really gets into the physics of time and space? Then you will love this book. The real history of timekeeping is just as interesting as SF. Orzel also writes in a manner that I, as someone who isn't a student of physics, can understand.

The book begins with a discussion of ancient monuments, and the ways those told time, and moves all the way through atomic clocks and other current experiments. He does a great job of explaining how astronomical bodies, including the earth, were the traditional basis for timekeeping, but now the second is defined by atomic vibrations. He relates the importance of time to travel, in that without it accurate latitude and longitude were not possible on ships, and that railroad travel forced consistency with time zones in the US. I love thinking about time as a human construct, but this book elucidates so many things that had never occurred to me.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone with a curious mind, but especially those who love science and science fiction. It is accessible, and the figures really help explain topics. It's long, but not difficult to read.
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Thank you to NetGalley and BenBella Books for the chance to read an early copy of this book!

This book is just about the most fun I've ever had reading serious non-fiction. It's a delightful and immensely readable journey through the history and science of marking time, from the Mayan calendar to standardized time zones to GPS. Even the footnotes are a joy to read, often featuring delightful asides. Highly recommended to anyone at all intrigued by the topic.
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This was fun! Orzel struck a good tone between technical details and history, making this book relatively accessible to a somewhat general audience, although I definitely expected less scientific details. I absolutely loved the first half, but the modern history of timekeeping is held up by modern physics and chemistry, so he had to go through all those developments, which were less engaging. The sections about changing calendars to keep them in line with seasons is so interesting - seems alien to us but like,,,leap day is just that but codified I can't believe we know what year the Egyptian calendar started being used! Spoiler: 2782 BC, almost five thousand years ago.
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What a great book! It takes you all the way from the very first recorded celestial observations to advances in quantum physics and special relativity, discussing how humans have studied and measured time. Orzel argues convincingly that timekeeping is a universal past-time, functioning as a means to "impose order and predictability onto an otherwise capricious and confusing universe". He also shows how timekeeping has changed from a foray of a small group of elites to something accessible to all of us, with various indirect advantages we likely don't think about, such as the use of accurate timekeeping for GPS navigation.

The chapters are ordered - appropriately enough - chronologically, and cover developments in different cultures, though are more weighted towards Europe/North America (especially in the modern sections). We see astronomical observations suggested by ancient tombs, water clocks used in ancient Greece and China, advances in medieval Europe, and modern-day labs working with atomic clocks. Lots of questions are answered: Why does February only have 28/29 days? Why is the Chinese New Year out of sync from the Gregorian New Year? Why did people think that the Mayans predicted 2012 to be the apocalypse? How did the current system of timezones come about? And is that stuff in sci-fi films about ageing at different rates real?

Orzel has a gift for explaining complicated phenomena clearly. He makes the odd joke here and there without it feeling at all forced, and doesn't shy away from explaining core physics concepts in detail (don't be fooled by the title - this is a fairly long read). Personally, I studied physics to age 18 and loved it, so was thankful for refreshers and new knowledge. If you are less into physics, you may prefer to skim-read sections (Orzel himself suggests skipping the more detailed information in the text boxes, and you can miss the footnotes if you are not interested (but I recommend them if you are!)). I also really appreciated how Orzel provides relevant information about social and politic developments that affected the history of science; these serve both to spice up the text and contextualise (the lack of) developments.

A small note: If you have a choice, I would recommend looking for a physical copy. I read the ebook and while the formatting is very good (and the illustrations are a nice touch), some of the diagrams (e.g. Loc 380 on equinoxes) were too faint / had too small text to make out without somehow zooming in.

I read a free ARC ebook copy, received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I'm a self-confessed sucker for books titled "A Brief History of.." although my track record of fully understanding the treated topic ranges from fairly appreciable to almost negligible. The latter proved the case when I attempted to read "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking exactly 25 years ago. With this in mind and in view of the near identical title,  it was with slight trepidation that I started out on "A Brief History of Timekeeping" by Chad Orzel. It proved to be a tremendously enjoyable read providing a broader treatment of the topic than I'd initially expected. The evolution of humanity's endeavour to observe and track time is intimately intertwined with the concomitant development of science through the ages. The evolution of science led to ever more precise ways of timekeeping and more precise timekeeping in turn aided the evolution of science. This book tracks the development of the concept of time, which was initially based on the asynchronous rotations of the sun and/or the moon. The corrective modifications each method's imprecisions constantly required were initially solved when timekeeping was divorced from the heavenly bodies and brought down to earth on the influences of Newtonian physics. The birth of Einstein's special and general theories of relativity lead to ever more precise methods of measuring the singular ticking of the concept of time. This book proved to be a wonderful journey through the history of science behind timekeeping and ended with a glance into the future.

I must admit that the astronomy and physics at times can seem a bit overpowering, unless you tackle the characteristics of cesium atoms, and general and special relativity on a frequent basis. Even though all topics are fairly clearly explained and illustrated (or can be glossed over as you get to the general idea of the matter), I think a basic understanding of physics is definitely helpful when tackling this book.
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My husband is a clock freak so I thought it would be fun to learn about the history of time keeping so we could chat. 

Sadly I DNFed this book.  I know it sounds cliched but it’s me, not the book.  I simply couldn’t warm up to the topic. The author is super knowledgeable but the info is presented very academically.  I like my history and non-fiction to have a little more narrative. 

Bonus points however for putting all the hardcore science info in shaded sidebars and encouraging non-science readers to pass them by.  The author clearly understood not everyone is as into physics and math as he is. 

Over all,  I’m sure the book will be interesting to a certain audience. Just not me.
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I love books about this sort of thing! Something that we never really think about, timekeeping affects our lives so much, especially in Industrial and post Industrial societies. While previous societies had to keep track of larger spans of time, we keep track down to the second.

Great for fans of offbeat and microhistory.
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I received a free eARC from the author/publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

A Brief History of Timekeeping is a fascinating micro history looking at time keeping from ancient times up to the present. It starts with pre-historic humans keeping track of the seasons for agriculture - when to plant and harvest crops- by using cues taken from the sun and moon (how high the sun is in the sky and lunar phases).  
Orzel takes us on a journey, and we see the sweep of history in this book. We get to explore sundials, astronomical sites such as Stonehenge and Mayan buildings, as well as the creation and maintenance of calendars from all over the world. We also look at time keeping devices such as clocks, watches, and electronic devices such as phones. He also explores how the act of keeping time influences culture (like workdays etc). 

In general the writing was simple and easy to understand, with sidebars explaining the more technical or theoretical aspects that are more difficult to understand. However, as the book went on these sidebars got longer and longer, and more difficult to understand, especially when he gets into the science of atomic clocks and quantum physics. 

Still, this is an excellent overview of human attempts to keep track of time, and despite the pace slowing a bit at the end, I would recommend this to readers who are interested in science, history, timekeeping, and micro-histories.
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I loved this book!! It took something mundane on the surface and made it into a fascinating story. It was very readable and I had a hard time putting it down. I can’t wait to order a physical copy and give it a reread.
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I chose to read this book thinking its focus was history. What I did not realize until about the second third of the book was that it would also get into a great deal of astronomy and physics. Perhaps I should have delved further before reading to learn the author was a college professor and physicist who based the book on a course he teaches.

The book is a history, starting with prehistoric efforts to track seasons for purposes of crop planting and harvesting, with astronomy and the locations of heavenly bodies used to ascertain the time of day (e.g. sun overhead), time of year (e.g. sun doesn't rise as high in the sky), time of month (e.g. the size of the moon in the sky), and how other heavenly bodies were used to keep time. Orzel takes us from sundials, to the present, explaining ancient Mayan structures, Stonehenge and other early efforts to time the seasons, how calendars were created and their evolution, as well as timekeeping at the level of our clocks, watches, cell phones and other electronic devices. Lots of enlightening discussion of early efforts to keep time.

From the earliest civilizations he describes efforts to measure the time of day, including sundials, water clocks (which work on cloudy days), hourglasses, and the development of mechanical clocks, then on to electronic clocks using quartz crystals, atomic clocks and future, more advanced atomic clocks. While much of this is enjoyable, the text is full of references to principles of astronomy and physics, explained in the text and further in detailed asides. The many illustrations were very helpful in conveying some of these scientific concepts, but once Orzel got into the theories of general and special relativity and how time bends near heavenly objects exerting strong gravitational forces, things got beyond my ready comprehension.

The last third of the book, in particular, includes a great deal of science that explains how timekeeping has advanced. Unless one has recently taken a course in astronomy or physics, much of this will be dense and slow going. I for one was not interested in the basics of cesium atomic clocks nor the future of laser clocks. But I did enjoy learning about how our GPS system relies on highly accurate timekeeping, which in turn is aided by the atomic clocks on the many GPS satellites orbiting our home planet. 

If you are a science buff, you will likely love this book. If you are more of a history buff or simply have an interest in timekeeping, you will find this book slow going but one can skip the detailed science and focus on the history.

Thanks to Net Galley and the publishers for providing an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an objective review which I have hopefully provided.
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Overall, an interesting and entertaining book detailing, well, the history of timekeeping. But, in addition to lots of fun facts about the evolution of timekeeping but also the influence of politics and culture (and vice versa — ie the influence of keeping time on culture). There are moments where the author gets a bit in the weeds with science, but, on the whole a quite intriguing read.
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This book is full of information about timekeeping from around the world, from different cultures and how the systems created to manage time changed in time. It's slow-paced reading but I took my time with it. I loved the book because I understood better the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars and time zones and other things that we can hear about or still have to deal with them.
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A Brief History of Timekeeping is both history and science, and so is the kind of book I  gravitate to. 

Author Chad Orzel starts with a strong statement in his introduction - "we [humanity] are and always have been a species that builds clocks". He then goes on to do a pretty good job justifying that statement with the rest of the book, which takes us from Neolithic megastructure timekeeping to today's atomic clocks that keep the time on our cellphones current, and the (historically extremely accurate) quartz watches many of us wear on our wrists.

Orzel is a scientist himself - holding a PhD in Chemical Physics - and also a Professor at Union College in Schenectady, NY.  He's the author of several other pretty well received popular science books, such as the humorously titled How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog and How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog.

In this book Orzel promises to keep the content "approachable and engaging for as broad an audience as possible". To do so, he separates out more technical discussions into sidebars set off from the main text. You can choose to delve into the sidebars, or skip them knowing you'll still get the gist of what he's talking about. This approach works pretty well in the early chapters of the book (and yes, of course I read the sidebars). But later in the book as he gets into quantum physics and atomic clocks the main text gets pretty darn technical and the sidebars grow to multiple pages. I'm not too proud to admit that most, if not all, of the chapter on Quantum Clocks was way over my head. Well, my college days are far behind me, and it's apparent that I've hit that age where I've forgotten more than most college kids know.

In general though I found the book enjoyable. There is plenty of history here I didn't know about, and some things, like the advanced water clocks of China, that I was aware of but learned much more about. He's spends a fair amount of time on the Aztecs and their cosmology and calendar system, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My personal preference in a history of science book like this one is that the author go heavy on the history and keep the science to the "explain it to me like I'm a fifth grader" level. This book is apparently adapted from a course Orzel teaches in the Physics Department at Union, and so perhaps for that reason the science throughout was a bit "heavier" than I would have liked.  So for that reason I give A Brief History of Timekeeping Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐.
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Solstice caves. Gregorian compromise. "Give us our 11 days!" Mayan calendar ends (order your refills!). tictictic, the measure of time. 

Orzel writes really clearly, even when the story is convoluted. The Julian calendar worked for 15 centuries before its rounding-error affected everyday life. I've read on this change in many books, but Orzel's is by far the best. But he also explains the Hebrew and Islamic moon-based calendars. One I never understood and the other was rare in my life until recently. Chronometers, for surveying and particularly for locating yourself east-to-west on the high seas, in search of treasure.

If you dig time, you must read this. Easily the best I have ever seen.
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Author Chad Orzel draws upon his experience as a professor to teach readers about the methodology of timekeeping on the largest and very smallest scale that we can conceive for now. Calling it a "brief" history brings to mind that the experience of time is relative, and this was a very slow read for me. The book is probably more engaging and accessible on the printed page based on a description of side bars in the introduction, which did not display as intended in the e-arc sent to my kindle.
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This is a solid entry in the history of timekeeping genre.  It's not technical so intelligent non-specialists should be OK with most of it.  If you do have a technical background, there's enough here to keep your interest going.  My one criticism would be more about editing than the coverage of the topic.  Instead of starting with the oldest known timekeeping efforts, we need a big beginning to get our attention.  My interest waned as I worked my through the older history, though I had seen a lot of the material before.  Recommended for interested teens through all ages.
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