Irregular timekeeping

A post from Roy Tang (itself inspired by a post from Austin Kleon) about calendars where each year is thirteen periods of 28 days has reminded me of a few things.

In general, I find these concepts of different ways to keep time and dates really fascinating. It’s such a fundamental part of our lives that to imagine a different way of doing things really twists my melon (man).

I find myself lusting after living under a solar clock occasionally – though this would never work in the latitudes I currently reside in; the day length varies too much. It might be better in the Tropics. In a fantasy world, though, I would love to try and live ‘by the sun’ even in climes where day length does indeed change throughout the year – simply rising at dawn and bedding down at nightfall. Perhaps rising in the middle of the summer nights by the light of the full moon to get some chores done.

Similarly, I was really captivated when I learned about early Japanese timekeeping, where each day was made up of a set number of hours, but each occurred at the same solar time each day, so that the hours themselves varied in length throughout the year. This necessitated clocks which could be so adjusted each day to keep them ‘in time’ with the sun. It’s the same as our current quirk of just sort of knowing the hours of daylight get shorter and longer throughout the year, but means clocks don’t need constant adjustment. I think the system we have is easier.

(As an aside, there are smartphone apps you can get, some with widgets, that will display the time in these alternative methods, and it’s actually kind of cool to be aware of the time in relation to the sun throughout the year. Knowing when local solar noon occurs is really quite nice. And actually, smartphones and smartwatches have made access to all this extra time/date metadata even easier: keeping track of the sunset/sunrise times, the phases of the moon, tides, and so on. And don’t get me started on Swatch’s ingenious internet time.)

Alternative calendars are similarly fascinating, but the abrupt changes in adopting a different one are felt less immediately.

In my old job at Network Rail I was intrigued to find that they (and, I understand, most railway companies with some link to the predecessor British Rail and the various regional railway operating companies) run to four week ‘periods’ of exact lengths, leading to a year having thirteen equal periods rather than twelve months of varying lengths. If I ever knew why they originally decided to do this – or why they continue to do this – the logic now escapes me.

I’d like to think it has some roots in the way that railways really gave to us modern timekeeping: even in a country as narrow as Britain, it was the coming of the railways that stopped local timezones being kept – where one town might be seven minutes ahead of the next, based on the sun – in favour of one national time zone, ostensibly so as not to mess up the timetables when trains could suddenly whisk you across the country in so short a time that variations in time zone would cause problems. I can’t think how this new railway-based approach to timekeeping would have lead to a new way of keeping days and months/periods, but perhaps it is linked.

Either way, the modern outcome for the rail employee of today in having to use this 13-periods-in-a-year system, regardless of inter-operation with other railway colleagues, has one quite crucial problem: being paid thirteen times a year sounds brilliant doesn’t it? Being paid on the same day every four weeks? So predictable and steady. Marvellous. Ah – until, that is, you remember that just about everything else in the world is done monthly – bills and rent and so on. And so when you are on a four-weekly pay period, ‘payday’ shifts every month, slowly going further and further out of sync with when your utility bills and rent/mortgage is actually paid. It’s actually sort of a nightmare. (Or it was for me when I was living one payslip to the next on a fairly small starting salary after university, and possessing the financial commonsense of gnat.)

The one nice aspect of four-weekly pay periods? That unicorn-like thing of a thirteenth payslip in a 12-month year, with no bills to pay that month. Sort of. But, honestly, I’d have taken one twelfth of that payslip spread across twelve monthly paydays FAR over the short-lived novelty of having an extra payday once a year.

As with all the systems referenced above: they might be all well and good in their own right, but they only work if everyone is using the same one.

One thought on “Irregular timekeeping

  1. It’s fascinating to think that our modern concept of time only goes back a few centuries, and was driven by the railroad and the need for standardization vs. localization. At least in the UK you get only one time zone to worry about! (The continental US has four, which opens up to six when you throw in Alaska/Hawaii. Canada gets five-and-a-half time zones. That’s right, they have a “half” zone: Newfoundland, which is a half-hour earlier than Atlantic time.)

    I’ve also read that in olden times (pre-electric light) when it was common to go to bed shortly after sunset, people often got up in the middle of the nights for a few hours. I can’t imagine sleeping straight for 14-16 hours in the winter months.

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