On Time National Museum of American History

Marking Time
  The Almanac
  Status Symbols
  Time in Religion
  Time Is Money
Synchronizing Time

Keeping Nature's Time

  Sundial, 1775–1820; by Goldsmith Chandlee, Winchester, Virginia; used at Dearmont Hall, Clarke County, Virginia

Sun Time

Time was local, determined by the sun as it rose in the east, moved toward its highest point in the sky at noon, and gradually descended. Because of Earth's rotation relative to the sun, a community a few miles east of another experienced sunrise, noon, and sunset earlier. Some people only noted the relative position of the sun. Others marked hours and minutes using a sundial. Even people who owned clocks and watches set their timepieces by the sun.

Night Time

Nights brought absolute darkness, with only firelight, candles, and moonlight for illumination. At dusk, also called "candlelighting," precious candles were brought out and used sparingly.  Nights when the moon was full and bright provided time for chores, amusements, or travel.  The dial on the tall case clock tracks the moon’s waxing and waning; its white painted surface was easier to see by the light of a flickering flame of the moon than a brass or silver dial. 

Candlestick with extinguisher
Tall case clock with moon dial
Moon dial
Candlestick, early 19th century; used by the Copp family in Stonington, Connecticut
Gift of John Brenton Copp
Candle extinguisher, early 19th century
Gift of W. B. Cooper

  Tall case clock with moon dial, about 1800; movement by African American clockmaker Peter Hill, Burlington, New Jersey; case by George Deacon, Burlington, New Jersey; dial by Wilson Clock Dial Manufactory, Birmingham, England   Moon dial on a tall case clock by African American clockmaker Peter Hill, about 1800.

Seasonal Time

Farm work was relentless, its rhythms timed to cyclical, seasonal demands—regional almanacs called out its tempo. In the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions, for example, spring was time for plowing and planting: first oats and flax, then corn and the household vegetable garden. Calves were born. Summer was time to weed, mow hay, and harvest wheat and rye planted the previous fall. Sheep were washed and shorn. Fall was for picking apples, cutting winter fodder, planting grain, and slaughtering pigs. Winter was time to cut firewood, care for livestock, and spin and weave.

Star Time

Astronomers and surveyors used a precision clock called a regulator to observe the time that specific "clock stars" passed overhead. With a special telescope, a transit, they noted the instant the star passed the local line of longitude.

Astronomical regulator Astronomical regulator Transit and equal altitude instrument

Astronomical regulator, about 1775 to 1785; by Andrew Ellicott, Baltimore, Maryland; shown here in reproduction case
Gift of Henry Ellicott Magill

  Astronomical regulator, about 1775 to 1785; by Andrew Ellicott, Baltimore, Maryland
Gift of Henry Ellicott Magill

  Transit and equal altitude instrument used in the survey of Washington, D.C., conducted by Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Banneker, and others in 1789
Gift of A. E. Douglas

Time at Sea
The exact time was crucial to mariners, too, who used an octant to find local time. Then they compared local ship time to the time kept by a marine chronometer, a precision clock set to the time of a place at a known longitude. By converting the difference into distance—fifteen degrees of longitude for every hour—they calculated their position east or west of that place. Seamen also used sandglasses that measured specific intervals of time to calculate ship speed, distance traveled, and periods of duty.

Octant Marine chronometer Sandglass
Octant, late 18th century; by Andrew Newell, Boston

  Marine chronometer, 18121815; by William Cranch Bond, Boston   Sandglass, early 19th century
The New American Practical Navigator   The New American Practical Navigator, 1802; by Nathaniel Bowditch
Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Musical tall case clock with orrery
  Musical tall case clock with orrery, 1769; by Joseph Ellicott, Buckingham, Pennsylvania
Gift of Richard Norton Fryberger, Joan Evans Strehler, and Ann McGaffey Cogswell

Clockwork Universe

At the end of the 17th century, most Western thinkers visualized the universe functioning like a giant clockwork. Sir Isaac Newton described its workings, theorizing that matter moved in regular, predictable ways through space and time under the influence of gravity.  He believed that time was absolute—advancing and unchanging everywhere in the universe. Master artisans sought to imitate and explain these motions by crafting elaborate clocks and orreries, which were models of the solar system. Some people saw order and harmony in this view of the cosmos; others came to see regimentation and tyranny.
Dial on Ellicott clock Musical selector on Ellicott clock Movement of Ellicott clock Orrery on Ellicott clock

Dial on Ellicott clock

  Musical selector on Ellicott clock; plays twenty-four tunes

  Movement of Ellicott clock   Orrery on Ellicott clock; depicts the motions of the sun, moon, and planets
Smithsonian National Museum of American History