Home > Alternate history, Society, What-ifs > What if there weren’t 24 hours in a day?

What if there weren’t 24 hours in a day?

A glimpse of a more rational worldIt’s something intuitive, isn’t it? 24 hours per day, 60 minutes per hour, 60 seconds per minute. We live with it every day, run our days by those rhythms, parcel out our lives in chunks based on 3600 second intervals. It’s something that has become second nature to us to the point where nobody questions its basis.

The reason we have the day as a unit of time is obvious – we are earthly creatures and our sleep/activity cycles are based around day and night, light and dark. Why we have the hour as a unit is less clear and less immediately obvious if you’re trying to guess where the notion came from.

If you’re familiar with your ancient history, you might know the little factoid that tells you that the hour unit was first set down by the ancient Egyptians. As far as we know, at least – it was a long time ago. Queen Cleopatra, for instance, lived closer in time to us than to the ancient scribe who decided to divide up his sundial into ten units of sunshine per day (plus two extras for morning and evening twilight).

After that, it seems the idea of 12 hours of daylight caught on, with the night bring divided up into 12 just to balance things up.

Later on, came the Babylonians (who were to the Greeks and Romans what the Greeks and Romans are to us – told you it was a long time ago). They gave us minutes and seconds, but only by accident.

See, the Babylonians had a pretty screwy counting system of base 60, as opposed to the base 10 system we use today. So to say the number 100, they would write 1[forty], which means one lot of sixty plus forty lots of one. While it works, it also meant that they used 60 as a basis for everything, including how they might divide up an hour to get a minute and how they’d do the same to the minute to get the second. They did what came naturally and now we’re stuck with it.

Why all this matters is that 12, 24 and 60 are inconsistent and relatively random divisions that we probably wouldn’t choose if we were starting from scratch in the modern day. In truth, we might opt for a 10 hour day instead of 24, 100 minutes an hour and 100 seconds per minute instead.

What would that really mean apart from making it easier for kids to learn the system?

Well, first of all, it would mean no more 3 or 9 o’clock as proxies for right and left (they would become 2.5 and 7.5 respectively on a clockface) and no more AM or PM. 12 would become 10 and 6 would become 5.

What happens to the workday is even more bizarre. You could imagine that with such long hour units (2:24 standard), the day would drag on, and a four hour day under that system would last 9:12 standard. Likely, people would default to half hour gradiations, which makes a 3.5 hour day the equivalent of 8:24.

So the downside is that you work longer hours, but the plus side is that you can take your sweet time at lunch ( 72 standard minutes for a half-hour lunch!)

Minutes would become longer too, at 1’24” standard, so concepts like the one-minute mile, rotations per minute and “just a minute” would either disappear or at least be heavily modified. I’d like to think that it would lead to a slower pace of life.

Seconds, finally, would also change, though not as much as you’d think. At 0.864″ standard, you’d hardly notice the difference sitting next to a clock, though the thought of an athlete running 100m in under 10″ would go from being really impressive to being unbelievable. Likely, with that barrier expressed as 11.57 centimal seconds, you would have sportswriters all over the world wondering if the 11 second barrier would ever be breached.

There is no way we would ever change the system in the future and will probably be measuring out minutes and seconds in lots of 60 for thousands of years, long after we colonise the stars and have forgotten we ever came from this small blue planet. Habit and convention are funny, powerful things.

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