Stephen Imbeau

“What is time?” you might ask.

The most famous response is by St. Augustine, who responded, to paraphrase: I know exactly what time is, if you don’t ask me to explain it.

And so it remains. Debate rages across the ages among historians, philosophers, religions and now science about the meaning of time. Does it have a beginning? Does it end? Is it linear?

But we have learned how to measure it … mostly.

At first we watched the moon and then the sun for time measurement going back about 6ooo years. By the 1500s BC (about the time of the Hebrew Exodus), the Egyptians had decent sun dials, water clocks and the hourglass, with refinements made over the years by the Chinese, the Greeks and the Romans.

A calendar year defined by the moon substantially fails to keep pace with the sun’s cycles, so eventually the sun was used beginning with Julius Caesar to define a calendar year. Further refinements were later made to these measurements by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 AD.

The Gregorian Calendar is used around most of the modern world, but a “leap year” (adding an extra day in February) is still required every four years to keep it all accurate.

Measuring time with the balance wheel allowed for mechanical clocks, much improved with the invention of the pendulum, which eventually allowed for miniaturization. Vibrating at a known frequency, balance wheels, pendulums, tuning forks, quartz crystals and atoms have allowed for major advances in clocks and their accuracy.

Energy has been provided by springs, controlled weights, electricity and electronics. The Arabs and the Chinese developed the first practical clocks for palaces and religious institutions in about 1000 AD. Europeans followed in the 1200s with major expansion in the 1300s. By the 1500s, clock and watch making was big business.

Mechanical clocks became very important for marine navigation. The concept of Greenwich Mean Time was first developed for the British Rail Industry. Obviously it depended on accurate time keeping, in 1847 locally to include the whole country by 1880, internationally in 1924 with hourly transmissions.

The Greenwich Mean Time of Zero is set to be midnight. But Greenwich time depends on the spin of the earth on its axis, and so it was replaced in 1972 by a set of coordinated atomic clocks much more accurate, called Universal Time, based on the fixed vibrations of in turn hydrogen, caesium, rubidium and mercury atoms.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) from the United States with 24 satellites covering the globe, using at least four of them per each calculation point, each satellite equipped with caesium and rubidium clocks, provides most of the world’s electronic time management and also, as the name implies, positioning services, allowing vehicles, ships, planes and satellites to know exact time and location, and allowing your cell or car phones to know the same about you. Three competing GPS services are in service or soon will be — from Europe, from Russia and from China.

The mechanical clock business became huge. Think of all the towns, villages, cities and then all the individual homes across the world that needed clocks before electricity. European villages, churches and palaces were often defined by their clocks. Think of all the tourists who come to London to see Big Ben, built in 1589 in Elizabeth Tower at the UK Parliament’s Palace of Westminster.

Recently the Big Ben Tower was refurbished. I was coming out from lunch from St. Stephens Pub across the street from Big Ben when an elegant Japanese tourist came up to ask about the location of Big Ben. I pointed across the street, but she didn’t believe me, since the clock tower was covered with scaffolding and an artists’ façade. I patiently explained to her that Big Ben was behind all the covering, only about 30 meters away, but I don’t think she ever did believe me.

The most famous and expensive clocks are scattered across the world, but probably most are in France, Germany and Russia. And with miniaturization and the balance spring came watches: pendant and pocket watches in the 1500s and wrist watches in the 1600s. The Americans were better at mass production, and the Waltham Watch company originated in Massachusetts in 1851.

But the Swiss were better at machine tools and precision parts, maintaining a leading role in the wristwatch market since 1830. By 1930 a huge majority of clocks and watches were wristwatches, with almost everyone wearing one.

The Japanese took advantage of battery miniaturization and the vibratory quality of quartz crystals to enter the wristwatch business in the 1960s and by 1980 predominated. The rise of the cell phone has diminished wristwatch use, but now some folks wear miniature computers on their wrists, most made in the Far East.

Remember that humans have built-in clocks, too, probably several, partly under brain and electrical control, partly hormonal or biochemical control, influenced by the timing of sunlight and darkness, and probably also influenced by the cycles of the moon and lunar “pull.” The regulation and release of several of our human, life-sustaining natural hormones is based on time.

Travel across several time zones can affect the human clocks, and typically folks rest for 24 hours when crossing more than three time zones, particularly when travelling West to East. Your brain can be trained to awaken you on demand, with amazing precision.

You can buy wrist watches for a few dollars, but you can also spend millions. Quality Swiss watches remain expensive, but probably nothing surpasses the multimillion-dollar Graff Diamond watches; even in France several hundred years ago you might have been able to buy the unique Marie Antoinette pocket watch for the equivalent of about $30 million.

You can buy clocks and watches all over Florence at most jewelers, department stores and big-box consumer stores, but you will get no better personal attention and service than at Wukela House of Clocks.

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Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife, Shirley, have been in Florence for more than 30 years and raised their three children here. He and Dr. Joseph Moyer started the Allergy Center about 21 years ago, and it is now one of the largest in South Carolina. Contact him at

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