Ventricles S1 E1: Telling Time

How have humans kept track of time? What technologies have they developed to tell time, and how have they been influenced by religious and scientific cultures? In this episode, Dr. Sara Schechner, a historian of astronomy and an artist who has made sundials herself, speaks about the history of timekeeping, and how timekeeping technologies have shaped people’s sense of time. We also hear from Dr. Avner Wishnitzer about how some people’s sense of time changed with the introduction of modern institutions, creating new “temporal cultures.”

Dr. Sara Schechner is the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.  She is a historian of science, specializing in material culture and the history of astronomy. 

Audio credits: Special thanks to Tom Roush for use of his song, “My Grandfather’s Clock”; to the Ottoman History Podcast for use of their episode “Time and Temporal Culture in the Ottoman Empire”; and The Overseas Ensemble, a collaboration between composer Paed Conca and Sarigama, for use of their music


Borst, Arno. The Ordering of Time from the Ancient Computus to the Modern Computer, trans. Andrew Winnard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 

Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, trans. Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Hannah, Robert. Time in Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Landes, David S. Revolution in Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Lippincott, Kristin, et. al. The Story of Time. London: Merrell Holberton with the National Maritime Museum, 1999

R. A Parker, “Ancient Egyptian Astronomy,” in The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World, ed. F. R. Hodson. London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1974.

Schechner, Sara J. “Astrolabes and Medieval Travel.” In The Art, Science, and Technology of Medieval Travel, 181-210. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. 

Schechner, Sara J. “European Pocket Sundials for Colonial Use in American Territories.” In How Scientific Instruments Have Changed Hands, Scientific Instruments and Collections, 5:119-170. Leiden: Brill, 2016. 

The earliest surviving Egyptian sundial is an L-shaped shadow clock of black schist, from the time of Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BCE), Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, acc. no. 19744. See: Sarah Symons, “Shadow Clocks and Sloping Sundials of the Egyptian New Kingdom and Late Period: Usage, Development and Structure,” Bulletin of the British Sundial Society 98, no. 3 (1998): 30–36. 

Wishnitzer, Avner. Reading clocks, alla Turca: time and society in the late Ottoman Empire. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

To see Sara’s own sundials, see: