More Time for Cupid

In our age of precise atomic clocks and the easy ability for most of the world’s population to buy a timepiece locally capable of accurately telling them the time of day, it is difficult to imagine that keeping time was once a precious commodity available to few. Until mechanical improvements in the mid-1600’s made more accurate measurements of time possible, most clocks in existence had only an hour hand and a dial that showed no smaller division of time than the quarter hour.

Regardless of a clockmaker’s early mechanical limitations, from the beginnings of clock making novelty clocks were hugely popular. By the Victorian era novelty clocks with complex automaton actions and mystery clocks, wherein no obvious connection appeared to exist between dial and movement, were not only affordable, but also accurate enough to give more than just entertainment value to their owners.

The desire to develop a tool with which to mark exactly when a day began and when it ended began long, long ago. The creation of clocks was tied to the need to define the calendar year, being that the march of time from one year to the next was important for both agricultural and ritualistic reasons. But, once able to measure time in a systematic way with early shadow and water clocks a new and troubling discovery was made. Without a method to keep a count of days coordinated over a period of time longer than one year, it would not be possible to maintain any type of static calendar of days forever.

The concept of leap year, in which one extra day, or days, would be added to keep the calendar year and seasonal year in sync, was introduced in Egypt in 238 BC. The later widespread acceptance of the leap year outside of that country, however, came about thanks to the epic love affair between Julius Caesar and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

While accompanying the queen in Egypt, Julius Caesar had the opportunity to discuss with her astronomer, Sosigenes of Alexandria, the rather confusing Roman calendar then currently in use. Romans used a lunar system to mark the solar year. This created the need to continually keep adding an extra month to the year every so often to keep their calendar aligned with seasonal festivals. As a result of those discussions the Julian Calendar was introduced to Rome in 45 BC. In the Julian Calendar the lunar measurement system was eliminated and every solar year that was divisible by four was a leap year.

February 2008 will have 29 days instead of the common 28 because 2008 is a leap year. We will have St. Valentines Day to celebrate on the 14th of the month, traditionally the day when admirers or those close to us express their love. But then later in the month we will have another day associated with leap year romantic tradition. In the past, in some locales, it is said that February 29 was the day on which women could propose marriage to men of their choosing.

The invention of the clock helped civilization to mark time well enough to define the limits of the solar year with a usable calendar. But it seems befitting that the observable progression of the ages, the seasonal changes of life, year by year, were set right by something just as intangible, weightless and boundless as time itself. A great romance was instrumental in helping the world to be more civilized by equalizing its reckoning of time. And in the process it was also made possible every few years to grant another extra day for cupid to play and twenty-four more hours for love.

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