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History of Time Measurement Devices

A large variety of devices have been invented to measure time. The study of these devices is called horology.

An Egyptian device dating to c.1500 BC, similar in shape to a bent T-square, measured the passage of time from the shadow cast by its crossbar on a non-linear rule. The T was oriented eastward in the mornings. At noon, the device was turned around so that it could cast its shadow in the evening direction.

A sundial uses a gnomon to cast a shadow on a set of markings which were calibrated to the hour. The position of the shadow marked the hour in local time.

The most precise timekeeping devices of the ancient world were the water clock or clepsydra, one of which was found in the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I (1525–1504 BC). They could be used to measure the hours even at night, but required manual timekeeping to replenish the flow of water. The Greeks and Chaldeans regularly maintained timekeeping records as an essential part of their astronomical observations. Arab inventors and engineers in particular made improvements on the use of water clocks up to the Middle Ages. In the 11th century, the Chinese inventors and engineers invented the first mechanical clocks to be driven by an escapement mechanism.

The hourglass uses the flow of sand to measure the flow of time. They were used in navigation. Ferdinand Magellan used 18 glasses on each ship for his circumnavigation of the globe (1522). Incense sticks and candles were, and are, commonly used to measure time in temples and churches across the globe. Water clocks, and later, mechanical clocks, were used to mark the events of the abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages. Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336), abbot of St. Alban's abbey, famously built a mechanical clock as an astronomical orrery about 1330. Great advances in accurate time-keeping were made by Galileo Galilei and especially Christiaan Huygens with the invention of pendulum driven clocks.

The English word clock probably comes from the Middle Dutch word "klocke" which is in turn derived from the mediaeval Latin word "clocca", which is ultimately derived from Celtic, and is cognate with French, Latin, and German words that mean bell. The passage of the hours at sea were marked by bells, and denoted the time (see ship's bells). The hours were marked by bells in the abbeys as well as at sea.

Clocks can range from watches, to more exotic varieties such as the Clock of the Long Now. They can be driven by a [variety of means, including gravity, springs, and various forms of electrical power, and regulated by a variety of means such as a pendulum.

A chronometer is a portable timekeeper that meets certain precision standards. Initially, the term was used to refer to the marine chronometer, a timepiece used to determine longitude by means of celestial navigation, a precision firstly achieved by John Harrison. More recently, the term has also been applied to the chronometer watch, a wristwatch that meets precision standards set by the Swiss agency COSC.

The most accurate timekeeping devices are atomic clocks, which are accurate to seconds in many millions of years, and are used to calibrate other clocks and timekeeping instruments. Atomic clocks use the spin property of atoms as their basis, and since 1967, the International System of Measurements bases its unit of time, the second, on the properties of cesium atoms. SI defines the second as 9,192,631,770 cycles of that radiation which corresponds to the transition between two electron spin energy levels of the ground state of the 133Cs atom.

Today, the Global Positioning System in coordination with the Network Time Protocol can be used to synchronize timekeeping systems across the globe.

In medieval philosophical writings, the atom was a unit of time referred to as the smallest possible division of time. The earliest known occurrence in English is in Byrhtferth's Enchiridion (a science text) of 1010–1012, where it was defined as 1/564 of a momentum (1½ minutes), and thus equal to 15/94 of a second. It was used in the computus, the process of calculating the date of Easter.

As of 2006[update], the smallest unit of time that has been directly measured is on the attosecond (10−18 s) time scale, or around 1026 Planck times.