Why There Are 24 Hours in a Day
Published on February 26, 2001

My friend Bryan Norcross knows just about everything

My friend Bryan Norcross knows just about everything.  He’s been doing a 20-part series for CBS in Miami called “Ask Bryan” and today wrapped his last one.  It hasn’t aired yet, but it’s “Why Are There 24 Hours In a Day?’

 

Think about it.  The “day” itself is a fairly natural notion – it’s the period of time from one sunrise to another – the time it takes the sun to circle the Earth.  What ancient couldn’t figure that out?  And a “month” is the time from full moon to full again.  Well, something like that.  And a year?  That’s the time it takes for the longest day of the year to get real short and then reach its longest again. 

 

Fine.  I may not have described this with atomic clock accuracy, but the point is that there’s a sort of observable celestial phenomenon at work here.  A caveman or a Hobbit, given enough time – and they had millennia – could have figured it out.

 

But is there some little asteroid that circles some other little asteroid 24 times a day?  Why 24 hours in a day and not 14?  Or 38?  And why 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute?

 

The answer, as best we can guess, Bryan says, is that the Sumerians (or did he say Babylonians?  Azerbaijanis?  I think he said Sumerians) used their fingers.

 

Fingers, after all, are digits and underlie the digital economy.  Our having ten of them, most of us, underlies the decimal system.

 

(Do you seriously think that if humans had 8 fingers instead of 10 a “dime” would have 10 pennies?  No, it would have 8, and there’d be 8 dimes to the dollar.  That this is approximately the value of the Canadian dollar – 64 cents – misses the point entirely.  Canadians have just as many fingers as we do – and there are indeed 100 cents to the Canadian dollar.  Coincidence?  I think not.)

 

But why 24 hours in the day?  Why not, say, 20? 

 

At which point Bryan crooked his right thumb to touch the base of his right index finger (please follow along and do it, too), and said, in much the same way as a Sumerian might have, 4,000 years ago . . . “One.” 

 

He then moved up a notch – see that?  Each of your fingers has three distinct segments.  I never really noticed that! – and, touching now the middle segment of his right index finger with his right thumb, he said . . . “Two.” 

 

I think you may sense where this is leading.  By the time your right thumb has counted each of the three segments of his neighboring four fingers, you’re up to 12. 

 

Long before people were reading with their lips, one imagines, they were counting with their fingers.

 

So a day was divided into 12 segments, called hours; and, too, the night. 

 

The foot, meanwhile, was the length of a human foot but an inch wasn’t the length of a toe – the foot (I’m guessing) was divided into 12 inches.  At least in some cultures.  Others, I guess, used the “unfolding fingers” method of counting (beginning with two closed fists) and so decided to break stuff into tenths instead of twelfths.

 

(I know some of you wrote PhD theses in this subject, and actually speak Sumerian – probably one of you from Azerbaijan – so I am fully prepared to print errata and oblongata as necessary.)

 

Now, still looking at your right palm, having successfully counted to 12, make a thumbs-up sign with your left hand.  As in . . . “that’s one set of 12.”  Count another set of twelve with your right hand and you earn an unfolded left index finger (never mind that now your left hand is prepared to say, “bang-bang” – the Sumerians, gentle souls, had no guns).  “That’s two sets of 12.” 

 

Keep doing this until you have unfolded all five fingers of your left hand, and you’ve got 60. 

 

My feeling is that if Sumerians had had six fingers on their left hands, there would be 72 seconds in a minute and 72 minutes in an hour.  Had they had six fingers on both hands – though no one believes that they did – days and nights would have had 15 hours each (full days, 30), and each hour would have been divided into 90 minutes.

 

If I’m confusing you, imagine what a centipede must feel.  They move so slowly because they’re trying to do the math.

 

Bryan goes on to explain that the days of the week were named after the seven known celestial bodies – SATURN day, SUN day, MOON day, MARS day (the Teutons called it Tuesday, but the French called it Mardi), MERCURY day (Mercredi), JUPITER (Jeudi) and VENUS day (Vendredi) . . . again, I am certain I’m misspelling some of this or torturing it in some other way, so click here if you want the original Sumerian.

 

So what I’m telling you here is that a few dozen long lifetimes ago – but still nothing in the context of the thousands of millions of years of evolution that underlay it all – people were looking at their hands and fingers and the moon and the sun, trying to make sense of the world.

 

And that very slowly the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.  (But very slowly.)  And then they began coming together a bit faster – the printing press just six long lifetimes ago being an important aid – and then faster still – and faster.  And now they are falling together at an incredible rate, which one guesses will only accelerate further, until . . . BLAST OFF!  

 

Just how you define “blast off” will depend on the particular philosophical and religious perspective you have formed, as well as your general level of cheeriness.  (Being an optimist, I see great things.  But one needn’t be Ted Kaczynski to harbor qualms.)

 

But there they were, counting with their right thumbs touching the first segment of their index fingers – one.  And now I have a laptop computer with all but instant access to almost all the information on the planet.  I have a cell phone the size of a small stone I can put to my ear and reach Charles, 4,000 miles away buying fabric (and just tapped to design the Anne Klein line!).  And I have TiVo.

 

(Full disclosure:  After touting TiVo and audible.com in this space, I became so enthusiastic – how did I live before TiVo? – that I bought a little of each stock.  I did no research, have no expectation that either can make any money, understand that Microsoft is about to enter the TiVo market with a terrific competitive device of its own, and do not recommend that you buy the shares.  But having bought them myself, I must warn you to take this and any further recommendation of the products – which I love – with appropriate skepticism.  I am no longer unbiased.)

 

And that, my friends, is why there are 24 hours in a day.

 

If only there were more.



© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Andrew Tobias