Time is of the essence

A spider dial made by Kevin Karney for a friend reads mean civil time. It is in bronze, water-jet cut and photo-etched. Photo supplied.
A spider dial made by Kevin Karney for a friend reads mean civil time. It is in bronze, water-jet cut and photo-etched. Photo supplied.
Kevin Karney.
Kevin Karney.
For many people time feels like the enemy — there is never enough of it. Rebecca Fox talks to Kevin Karney, who believes people are too driven by time.

The whole time business has got ''quite out of hand'', Kevin Karney believes.

A specialist in time, sundials and cosmology, Karney believes people are so consumed by needing to know the time to the nearest second they have forgotten it has not always been like that.

From southeast Wales, Karney will visit Dunedin this month to talk about time-keeping as part of a national speaking tour for the Decorative and Fine Arts Societies.

The former engineer, who studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and was a VSO teacher in Borneo, has always had an interest in sundials, something his grandfather was also interested in.

''When I retired, it was time to look at these things in more detail.''

As well as lecturing about sundials and time, he also makes his own sundials and collects timepieces. He has 40 sundials of varying sizes, from replicas of the tiny ones the rich in medieval times kept in their pockets to the garden variety.

''It's the history mainly and because we are driven by microscopic time to the 10th of a millisecond [today].

''Watches tell time with extraordinary accuracy and we drive cars which have GPS systems which are driven by time systems, but it wasn't like that first at all.''

In early history, people were not interested in telling time, as they could do it by looking up at the sky and seeing it was about time for lunch.

''But what they were interested in was the time of the year and that was needed for agricultural purposes and cultural purposes, as great feasts were held on the solstice and equinoxes.''

In ancient Greece, ordinary people told the time of year by watching the stars to know when they should plant various crops or harvest them, he said.

''That was the initial interest - telling of the season rather time of day.''

However, as the world developed, people became more interested in telling time and working out how long things took.

''If you hire labour to do things you need to measure how long people have worked, so various different timepieces were developed for that purpose.''

The first way used to tell time was for a person to look at their shadow cast by the sun and through to the 1300 to 1400s most people told time that way.

''There were rules. Say in June when their shadow was twice their height it was 4 o'clock.''

Other timing devices developed in early times included water clocks - some as simple as a bowl with holes in it being filled with water and when it ran dry a person's time had run out. In ancient Greece and Rome they were used to time legal arguments.

In Egypt they used burning flax to time a days work. A length of flax was soaked in olive oil and lit and when it burned out it marked the end of half a working day.

Then, of course, there was the hourglass, or egg timer as we know it.

When civic offices and churches required time-telling, sundials were developed, becoming quite sophisticated.

In contrast, in the Arab world, time was told between sunrise and sunset, with 12 hours between sunrise and sunset. The hours were longer in the summer than in winter during the daytime.

''Most people find that quite extraordinary, but that was the way it worked,'' Mr Karney said.

The next significant development after that was clocks, which had been exceedingly inaccurate, becoming relatively accurate when Galileo invented the pendulum clock.

This coincided with navigation becoming important as ships began to travel further afield.

''The need for accurate time-telling became more and more important.''

Then about 1750 the first significantly accurate chronometer was made, allowing navigators to calculate longitude.

An ordinary sundial is up to 16 minutes wrong at times of the year as it is based on solar time as compared to mean time.

''It became necessary for navigators take over time-keeping from sundials.''

Another major change came along when railways and the telegraph developed requiring uniform time- keeping across the country.

''Railways were very keen to have uniform time across the whole country so they bullied the government in Britain and in 1880 the British government adopted railway time as Greenwich mean time.''

The change took a long time for people to get used to and there were many complaints about it.

''Once done in Britain, all other countries in the world adopted the same idea, time zones were established and we got modern time.''

Then time signals were broadcast on radio and also became available on the telephone.

''Bit by bit we moved to the atomic age and now everything is extraordinary accurate. We're ruled by GPS and phones and railways - the whole thing has got quite out of hand, '' Mr Karney said.

One of the reasons people living in early times were not so interested in time was the lack of accuracy in time-keepers, he said.

It was not until the pendulum came along that clocks were any good and it was not until the 1600s that a minute hand turned up.

''With the industrial revolution and speeding up of our lives we have got more and more accurate and more and more reliant on extremely accurate time-keeping.''

International time was now told by a series of atomic clocks around the world co-ordinated by the United Nations, which is responsible for delivering universal time - the world's legal time.

Atomic time is extremely regular compared with astronomical time but there were cultural implications, as many cultures still used astronomical time as a base for rituals such as the Greek orthodox church's Easter, he said.

People's reliance on time intrigues Mr Karney, as he believed most people could tell time simply by their ''tummies''.

They did not need to be driven by the clock as much as they were unless they were scientists or traders on the international stock market.

''For most people they are driven by time to a degree they don't need to be.

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