The Hour in Ancient Babylon

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An hour is an hour, right? Well, yes and no. An hour by our standards is 60 minutes, end of story. But to the ancient Babylonians, the hour varied. Here's why:

They used a relatively invention timekeeping device called the sundial and divided the imaginary circular path of the Sun into 12 equal parts on the dial. Then, they prescribed a value of an hour to each of those dial parts.

So far, so good. BUT, they further declared that the divisions would be for daylight and darkness. So, 12 hours of daylight meant 12 "hours" of daylight. If the daylight lasted longer than 720 minutes, then the "hours" were longer than 60 minutes. (In other words, they divided the daylight into 12 "hours," no matter how long those "hours" really were. This gets confusing only if you insist that an "hour" is 60 minutes.)

Now, we might think that this was counterproductive, but it worked for them (despite the obvious caveat that cloudy days were more difficult to delineate). They certainly knew that the days were shorter in the summer and longer in the winter, but they clung to their 12-hour division.

Why? No one really knows for sure. An educated guess is that they did so because it was easier to do so (although it could be argued that they had to keep redrawing the lines on the dial). They certainly went on to make other inventions that proved their scientific powers to be advanced almost beyond belief.

As with many things from this part of history, we know the what but not the why.

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David White