Popular Science

A brief, 20,000-year history of timekeeping

As clocks got more accurate, we had to redefine the second.

ver millennia, humankind’s time-tracking has grown increasingly precise. Sundials divided days into hours. Clocks broke hours into quarters and ­minutes, and finally minutes into seconds. As timepieces evolved, so did scientists’ need for ever-more-exact tickers. They developed devices that relied not on Earth’s wobbly ­rotation, but on microscopic atomic movements. At the heart of it all is an ever-advancing appreciation for our smallest temporal unit, the and cellphones rely on keeping this interval consistent, which makes defining and refining it, well, of the essence.

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