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submitted 3 months ago by BackOnMyBS to c/nostupidquestions

The sun dial worked during daylight, but how did people agree on what time it was at night before clocks were invented?

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[-] Zehzin 298 points 3 months ago

Bro why you trying to divide the day into so many chunks the industrial revolution hasn't happened yet just go to bed

[-] BackOnMyBS 46 points 3 months ago

yeah, i need to. good call 👍

[-] Mr_Blott 9 points 3 months ago

Sleep until you get woken by the cock

[-] Wetstew 7 points 3 months ago

Woah, history is a lot cooler than I tho– oh the bird

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[-] AFKBRBChocolate 156 points 3 months ago

There were some timekeeping approaches, including candles marked with the hours based on burn rate (also used as alarm clocks by sticking metal things in them that would fall on a bell or metal dish below), but there also wasn't a lot of reason to know the time accurately at night. Hell, in the time before clocks, there wasn't much need to know the time accurately in the day. People used sunrise, noon, and sunset as the major markers.

[-] [email protected] 48 points 3 months ago

Even up to the advent of trains, time was very localized. Timezones didn't exist, and people would just come to a general consensus on what time it was, often via a clocktower or similar structure.

[-] [email protected] 24 points 3 months ago

I remember reading once that if you time traveled back to Europe anywhere beyond 200 years, the majority of people would not know what year it was. All they understood was summer winter summer winter, someone born two years ago, someone died five years ago, that's it.

The church kept track of Holy days but even that was an ongoing controversy with everyone.

You could go back to 1123 and there might be a hundred people that kept track of the year but even they wouldn't agree with one another.

[-] marx2k 8 points 3 months ago

So how do we know it's really 2024?

[-] [email protected] 8 points 3 months ago

By comparing historical accounts of known events with stable periods, like eclipses or comets.

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[-] [email protected] 7 points 3 months ago

This simply isn't true. People kept track of the year, even if it wasn't the Julian calendar, stuff like "the third year of the reign of king George".

[-] [email protected] 19 points 3 months ago

Honestly, even in the world after the invention of clocks knowing the time down to the minute isn't very important for most people most of the time. Sure, it can be useful on occasion, but people put way too much emphasis on way too small of time units way too often.

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[-] [email protected] 16 points 3 months ago

There were things like tracking guard shifts after sundown but the candle or an hourglass would be sufficient for that. It's usually a case where you don't actually care about what time it is now but you do care about time elapsed.

[-] Illuminostro 75 points 3 months ago

They didn't. They went to sleep shortly after dark, woke up around midnight to fuck and eat, then went back to sleep until dawn. For hundreds of thousands of years.

[-] z00s 15 points 3 months ago

I've been living in the future but I should've been living in the past

[-] Tyfud 5 points 3 months ago

The future is then now!

[-] dhork 69 points 3 months ago

The stars have a very predictable pattern to them, ancient people had nothing better to do at night than look up, and since there was no light pollution it was quite a show.

Depending on the time of year, some constellations would be visible all night and move across the sky. That's where the original Zodiac signs came from.

[-] [email protected] 42 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

This past winter, I started using Orion as a clock while I was out walking the dogs in the evenings. Got pretty good and could guesstimate the time to within about 30 minutes.

That only works until about 3 am or so, but if I was out more often that late, I could probably just pick a different constellation.

[-] felbane 48 points 3 months ago

Look at this fancy mf able to see Orion at night without it being blocked out by ludicrous amounts of light pollution

[-] [email protected] 19 points 3 months ago

Things should get better when Betelgeuse goes supernova.

[-] PunnyName 10 points 3 months ago

That fucker needs to hurry

[-] frostysauce 5 points 3 months ago

How long do you spend walking your dogs!? Just look at the clock when you go out and won't you still be accurate to within 30 minutes when you get back?

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[-] AbouBenAdhem 18 points 3 months ago

It’s actually easier to tell the time using the stars rather than the sun, because the elevation of the sun is hard to estimate without using a device like a sundial; but there are always stars near enough to the horizon that their elevation can be estimated with the unaided eye.

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[-] [email protected] 9 points 3 months ago

Good thing overcast skies weren't invented yet.

[-] [email protected] 44 points 3 months ago

They actually didn't for the most part, hour level divisions were mostly for the sake of tracking time in the daytime, when having that level of precision could be important for things like jobs or time sensitive tasks, but at night all that really mattered was that you got to bed with enough time to get a full night's sleep.

[-] Demonmariner 36 points 3 months ago

Precise time came to humanity with the railroad. Until then no one cared very much about whether it was 11:35 PM or "around midnight" or "way past bedtime." Train timetables were the first thing that made minutes matter to the general public.

Mariners cared about time and preferred to be as precise as possible, but did pretty well telling local time by the stars. Finding longitude was a problem until good clocks came aling though.

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[-] PrinceWith999Enemies 32 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

So I got scooped on the whole candle thing, which I really wanted to go with. Instead, I’m going to pivot and say that accurate timekeeping - day or night - was actually driven by the needs of navigation. 

You could get a pretty good idea of when it was based on the position of the sun and stars, as long as you knew where you were. The opposite is also true - you could figure out where you were, as long as you knew what time it was (and had the appropriate charts/data). The problem was that, while sailing around the world, ships often didn’t know either one.

For rough purposes, people used things like candles. In some cases, monks would recite specific prayers at a given cadence to keep track of time overnight and so know when to wake the others. These methods, as well as later inventions like the pendulum clock that used a known time component to drive watch mechanisms, were all but useless for navigation due to inaccuracies. They were good enough in the 1200s to let the monks know when to pray, though.

[-] [email protected] 10 points 3 months ago

To touch on the reciting of prayers, they would also use that to time mixing of substances and what little medical procedures they had. Neat!

[-] Tolstoshev 8 points 3 months ago

Is that where the idea of witches reciting incantations while mixing potions comes from?

[-] [email protected] 6 points 3 months ago

The first pendulum clocks "broke" when shipped to other parts of the world. They didn't keep the same time as the place of manufacture because gravity was ever so slightly different (Earth being an oblate spheroid) approaching the equator slowed the clocks down enough to slowly lose time.

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[-] cygon 29 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)
  • An amusing way people used to wake up early was by drinking extra water before going to sleep. Their full bladder would wake them in the early morning hours (unless they overdid it, in which case they had to use the potty in the middle of the night and then overslept).

  • Animal noises. Most people had animals or lived near other people with animals, so the morning hours had a bunch of typical animal noises (animals, like humans, have an inner clock, and some animals are programmed to wake up before dawn).

  • Logs near the stove. A seasonal thing, but in winter, if you know you usually refill the stove 3 or 4 times during the night, you can tell how much of the night has passed through your wood stack.

The bi-phasic sleep thing also helped (take a good nap around noon, but also wake up at midnight and drink a beer with the neighbors). The point of midnight may have been rather arbitrary, though.

As far as I'm aware, candles were affordable, but the average person still couldn't afford to burn down a candle every day to work or measure time, so once it got dark, normal work ceased and, at best, a family would meet in front of the stove and tell stories, knit or carve for a while.

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[-] [email protected] 22 points 3 months ago

From my larping experience

  • Moon position, it's not as reproducible as the sun, but you can really see the moon moving through the sky.

  • Light, especially in summer, it starts to get night around 22, is pitch black at midnight around 3-4 you start to guess some light in the sky, at 5 it's not day yet but you can see without a torch, and at 6 it's bright.

  • Candle and fire-pit aren't objective clock, but still a way to evaluate how much time has passed.

[-] Adalast 24 points 3 months ago

It's funny you say candle, because there were actually fire clocks that were very accurate. They couldn't tell you what time it was, but they could tell you very accurately how long they had been burning. If lit before nightfall and timed with a sundial, they were capable of rather precisely telling what time it was at night.

Similarly, sand clocks have been a thing for thousands of years. Think hourglass, but with different size holes and made of different materials with larger volumes.

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[-] j4k3 20 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

Water clock was a possibility but uncommon. Early industrial age was a person that you paid to come bang on your shutters until you responded.

Most people just kept a circadian routine. Another trick is to simply drink as much water as you need so that you will wake up after a given amount of time.

The idea of time as a unit of measure that is critical for task completion is a rather new invention of current culture.

[-] DJKayDawg 17 points 3 months ago

THE Big Dipper's angle can be used to tell time at northern latitudes. It stays in the sky all night. I was told by a Blackfoot elder that they used it as a clock on clear nights.

The position changes with both time of night and time of year. Regular observers can tell time by the angle the constellation sits at.

[-] MIDItheKID 16 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

Oh hey! I actually read into this recently. It came from wondering what exactly "The Witching Hour" was, and apparently it was invented by Christians and it's between 3am and 4am. I thought "oh hey that's interesting when did that start?", and then when I read that it may have started back in 1535 I was like "Wait how the fuck did they know it was 3am in 1535? When were clocks invented?!"

So that's when I found out that mechanical clocks actually date back to the 1300s

So then I was like "well how did they tell time at night before that?" and it ends up that all the way back in the 16th century BC, they had these things called water clocks. So basically, they had figured out the sun dial a few hundred years before that, and while tracking an hour, they had 2 vessels, one full of water and the other empty. They would have the water flow from one to the other so that when the top vessel was empty, x amount of time had passed (for sake of simplicity call it a hour), then they would pour the water back into the top vessel to measure the next hour, and they were able to do this without the sun. It was basically the same concept of an hourglass (which actually didn't come around until 1000 AD) but with water.

And before sundials and water clocks? I dunno. I guess they just went to sleep when the sun went down, and woke up when it came up, and didn't plan things around specific times. Sounds pretty nice, honestly.

[-] Etterra 14 points 3 months ago

Star movements probably. They also knew how long certain things would burn for. There were even candles that would be marked specifically for hour counting.

[-] Drivebyhaiku 11 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

Yup, the ancients loved stars. It was strangely common for multiple cultures to create these weird observatories that were mostly for observation of a single star associated with different seasons.

Mechanical options were usually used by people trying for some form of efficiency either social or to mark distance. Marking time on ships was very important for accurate mapping for instance.

As for most of society meeting up at a given time just took longer as everything was more of a rough estimate. Some of the accounts have been guessed at as people didn't write details about how they approached time down. It's been hazarded that the day marked your doing productive stuff period and you set out your routine for days in advance so people knew where to find you if not exactly when you'd be doing it. Evening was your social planning time where you'd meet up and share details of your to do list with the people who needed to know.

I once spent a week with a whole bunch of people camping on a big property for a Medieval recreation event where we had volunteer work to do on the property and agreed to attempt to explore time as our ancestors knew it. We all ditched our watches for two weeks. It was actually generally fairly relaxing? Everything moved a little slower but not by that much. There wasn't any way to have much anxiety about not being precise so you just got used to people showing up during a wider span. If there was somewhere people needed to be around a specific time the person hosting the event just dispatched some runners to the places you knew people were going to be and people became more conversational as they passed along info. Actually very basic conversation had a lot more interest because passing along knowledge of what you knew was happening elsewhere became an actual topic of combined mutual interest instead of very boring comparisons of time tables.

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[-] toxicbubble 12 points 3 months ago

some towns hired people to wake the town for work, and someone else would be hired to wake them up. some societies studied the stars and moon to tell the time at night. and like others stated, there were candles, lanterns, and furnaces to tell how much time has passed. people were more in tune with their environment

[-] [email protected] 5 points 3 months ago

How did the wakeyuppymen know what time to start wakeyuppying, tho?

[-] [email protected] 5 points 3 months ago

A wakeyuppyman is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.

[-] z00s 5 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

He gets woken up by the wakeyuppy-wakeyupperer, who in turn is woken up by the wakeyupper-wakeyupper-wakeyupperer.

Basically, at least one person had to be awake at any given moment or society would collapse. It happened once and they didn't recover for hundreds of years, that's why they called it "The Dark Ages".

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[-] EndOfLine 12 points 3 months ago
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[-] DaBPunkt 10 points 3 months ago

Just spoke with a tour guide about this topic. If you lived in a city during the middle age in Europe, the night watch announced the current time every hour. How did they know the time? They just guessed, because nobody in the city could know better.

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[-] [email protected] 7 points 3 months ago

Sand, water, candles. Each one can be a clock

[-] someguy3 6 points 3 months ago

how did people agree on what time it was at night

They didn't. There was no need to and no way to do it anyway.

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[-] [email protected] 6 points 3 months ago

Easy peasy, they didn't

[-] [email protected] 5 points 3 months ago

Moon, stars, depends how accurate they want to be.

eg: Go to bed at sunset; meet me at moonrise; festival starts when some constellation rises over the mountain.

[-] [email protected] 5 points 3 months ago* (last edited 3 months ago)

Not sure how accurate this is, but in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, some monks stay up all night chanting so that they can wake up the other monks for morning prayers. So, the night monks chant a Hail Mary X number of times, and that takes them Y amount of time.

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this post was submitted on 26 Feb 2024
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