Thoughts on… how people used to measure time

Sometimes I think about things that don’t really need thinking about, but I enjoy thinking about them anyway. Often times I tell my ponderings to Mike and we will share a lengthy conversation making it even more ridiculous. I had one such conversation with him a while back, but when I reminded him this evening he couldn’t recall it. I’m pretty certain it was something I told him, but I can’t remember exactly how I put it before, so I’m going to try again.

My idea was based around how people used to measure time centuries ago before clocks and time measurements existed. I thought they might use everyday events to get across how much time something would take. Here’s some examples:

  • “She’ll be here in ‘me running from here to the shop’ amount of my life.”
  • “A day is ‘me walking to London and back 7 times’ long.”
  • “It takes ‘a chicken walking quite fast over to that door’ to cook a piece of toast.”

The theory… I say theory, it was more of an idea… I say idea, it was more of a stream of words put together in an attempt to say something that sounded in some way meaningful… but the idea was that because they couldn’t say a set amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks or whatever, they would have to rely on things that take a set amount of time to compare with what they were trying to measure.

It got a little silly using ‘a chicken walking quite fast’ as an accurate basis for a time period, but that’s where we had a little fun with it. In fact, that’s how I know I did discuss it with Mike, as that’s the kind of thing we’d come out with. The conversation would have gone something like this:

“How long does it take?”
“It takes… that chicken walking over to that door.”
“How fast is the chicken going?”
“The normal speed.”
“How do we know how fast that is?”
“The average speed of a chicken would be a well known fact at that time.”
“But chickens don’t just move at one speed, what if it’s moving quicker.”
“Well then you’d say it’s going quite fast.”
“What, so you’d have to say ‘a chicken walking quite fast to that door’?”
“Okay then, you’d say it’s going at 3 miles per hour.”
“Ah, but there’s no such thing as an hour… and probably not miles either.”
“Alright, you’d say… you’d say it’s going at 3 walk-around-towns per sun-setting-speed.”
“So you’d say it takes as long as ‘a chicken going over to the door at 3 walk-around-towns per sun-setting-speed’?”
“It’s a bit long winded isn’t it?”
“Well that’s why they invented time wasn’t it, cos it was too much hassle to say all that.”

Now, my theory does seem pretty absurd, mainly because I’m implying that chickens, toast and shops were invented before time measurements. But then I don’t think that’s the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing. I think the weirdest part is that I’m now suggesting chickens were invented. When I look back on this sort of theorising, I do question my own sanity.

But it’s still an interesting topic for me. Because what would they have said? Before the calendar was invented, they used the position of the sun/moon to calculate time periods. But what about for smaller events? You can’t say “I’ll be there in the time it takes the sun to move 0.01mm to the east” because that would just sound stupid and never work. So you’d have to use objects that move quicker and that everybody is familiar with. Like… chickens.

I’ll be honest with you, there’s a lot of holes in my theory, and it’s by no means complete. But it’s worth considering, if only for ‘eating a tuna sandwich quite quickly’ amount of time.

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