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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Why 60 Minutes?

Time being the measure of sequence and duration is a tricky thing to understand, unless of course you are the possessor of Hawking-like mental acuity. But The Inquisition only cares about the real issues – why do we have 12 months? Why do we have 60 minutes? 24 hours? 7 days? 12 months?

Simple Answer

Well ,the simple answer is that the original peoples who sub-divided the day used a differen numerical system to our decimals. In particular bases of 12 and 60. So, it is a really old system, at least 4000 years, that survived humanity seeing the light and switching to a base numeral system of 10.

(Slightly) More In-depth

Sundials were the first time-pieces created by the Egyptians, whose numeric system was duodecimal ie. a base of 12. Although possibly the Sumerians, whose base was 60, got there first. These sundial temporal divisions were flexible in length; hours were not fixed in length until the Greeks got all fancy.

But why 60 as a base? Well, no-one really knows but mathematically it is an intriguing number, being divisible by the first six whole numbers as well as by 10, 15, 20, and 30. And for that matter why 12? Well, maybe because there are 12.37 lunar months in a year. But also, that may not have been the reason.

Hogarth's "An Election Entertainment", 1755, based on the previous year's local elections, during hich the Gregorian calendar was a hot topic. The painting features a banner proclaiming 'Give us back our 11 days'.

Hogarth's 'An Election Entertainment', 1755, based on the previous year's local elections, during hich the Gregorian calendar was a hot topic. The painting features a banner proclaiming 'Give us back our 11 days'.

Months and Calendars

Why twelve? – well again base numerals and lunar cycles are the obvious culprits. But bear this in mind- the Romans originally had ten months but added January and February later. That is why the 9th month, september, translates as seventh month, october as eighth, november as ninth and december as tenth. They also renamed the months Quintilis and Sextilis later as July to celebrate Julius Caesar and August to celebrate Emperor Augustus. As the Christian churches grew in Rome they adopted the Julian calendar and the world followed suit.

Later the Julian calendar was amended to the Gregorian calendar, which is most commonly used today. The idea was to bring the church into line with its philosophical decision on the timing of Easter, which was settled upon at the first Council of Nicaea approximately 1200 years before.

The new calendar was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom it was named, on 24 February 1582 to much consternation. Ten days were dropped to bring it back into seasonal alignment. People went spare over the ten days of their lives gone, just like that. Catholic countries adopted it, Protestant ones took a while.

The Irish adopted it during the Nine Years war against the British who didn’t. After the war was lost they sought dispensation from its observance as it marked them out as disloyal to the Crown.

Sweden took forty years to adopt the new ways. The British Empire adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 by which time they needed 11 days to come into line. Late comers included Alaska (1867), Russia (1917), Greece(1923) and Turkey (1926). China finally brought matters to a close in 1929!


Why seven days? The Babylonians again. They divided the lunar phases into four main stages, each 7 days long. Then conveniently God came along and made the Jewish world in 7 days to reinforce the idea. Sound.

Temporal Deviants

If you think handling units of 60 is difficult then try the Aztec calendar, which although very precise is/was also totally barmy, having a 365 day yearly count in tandem with a 260 day ritual cycle. Together they form a grand cycle of 52 years. Fair enough but bear in mind that in the 260 day cycle each day is numerically defined by a number from 1 to 13 and one of twenty signs in the following manner:

1 Crocodile is followed by 2 Wind, 3 House, 4 Lizard, and so forth up to 13 Reed, after which the cycle of numbers would restart (though the twenty day signs had not yet been exhausted) giving 1 Jaguar. The cycle of day signs would continue until 7 Flower, after which it would restart and give 8 Crocodile. It would take a full 260 days (13×20) for the two cycles of twenty day signs and thirteen numbers to realign and repeat the combination 1 Crocodile.

Is it any wonder one of the greatest Aztec artifacts is a massive calendar that was used a chopping board (for human sacrifice)?

The Inquisition can’t even begin to understand the Mayan Calendar, let alone explain it with any coherence. Suffice to say, in its shorter timescale form (the Calendar Round) it has several calendars, the most prominent of which is based on a 260 day cycle like the Aztecs. The Mayans had another calendar for greater temporal distances called The Long Count and centred around their numeric system with a base of 20.

The French Revolution temporarily introduced a decimal clock and calendar featuring ten day weeks, 30 day months, 100 minutes in an hour and so on. They even made a full circle 400 degress and a right angle 100 degress. But then their leaders became paranoid and delusional and decided the best course of action for social happiness was killings, and lots of them too.

Of course, for nearly their entire history the Chinese had decimal and duodecimal time, but then, the best thing they kind think of doing with gunpowder was making it look pretty in the air. Here is a loony who wants to give decimalised time a better shot and try again.

There are loads of other calendars and time measurements, but they are all quirky and a bit wonky.

Mayan Calendar – Wikipedia
Aztec Calendar – Wikipedia
Scientific American on Temporal Division
Julian Calendar – Wikipedia
The Months
The Days
Roman Calendar

This article was posted by on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 06:18.
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