What’s the greatest invention of all time?

I’ll give you a clue, the answer is contained in the question.

That’s right. The greatest invention of all time… is time itself. I’m not talking about the idea of time. That’s innate. I’m talking about the classifying and measuring of time into uniform units.

Essentially, the pendulum clock.

Up until Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock in 1656, the best timekeepers on offer were woefully inaccurate. They would lose about 15 minutes a day. So your clock would be out by an hour every four days. Huygens reduced this time loss to 15 seconds a day.

Around 100 years after this, John Harrison built on Huygens work and invented the first accurate clock for ships – a feat which took him 31 years of dedication.

This marine chronometer revolutionised sea navigation and accelerated the age of discovery. It led to the beginning of globalisation.

In fact, many argue that the ability to accurately measure time is what truly powered the Industrial Revolution, even more so than the steam engine.

As Lewis Mumford wrote in his 1934, Technics and Civilization:

When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence. Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up. It could even be expanded be invention of labor-saving instruments.

Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.

We are time slaves

We don’t begin and end work when we feel like it. We have strict schedules we must abide by. We don’t sleep when we’re tired. We sleep when it’s socially acceptable to do so. We don’t eat when we’re hungry, we eat when the clock says it’s time to.

We are slaves to time, whether we like it or not. And it is this total and complete enslavement that has led to the progress we see today.

And who do we have to thank for it? This man: Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.


Source: public domain

Of course, we also have a whole host of other things to thank him for, too. Modern communication, air and space travel, satellites, phones, computers, GPS, TV, the internet… basically anything that relies on accurate time.

And you’d be surprised just how important accurate timekeeping is to all of those things.

If our world clocks were to lose one second in 140,000 years, GPS would be unusable

Time has moved on since Huygens’ day. In the early 20th century quartz watches were invented and then later, atomic clocks.

We rely on over 400 atomic clocks spread throughput the globe to keep our time accurate. Without the mega accuracy of atomic clocks, nothing would work. The world would fall apart.

An atomic clock in Switzerland. Source: public domain

All of our communications rely on the syncing of world clocks. Telecommunications work by splitting data up into packets and then reassembling it. The data travels across many different networks, and if all these networks aren’t keeping to the same exact time, this data will be lost.

In fact, telecommunication networks need to be so accurate they only lose one second every 3,000 years. Any more and your WhatsApp message would never get through, nor would the email you had to send in its place.

The global positioning system (GPS) requires even more accuracy. If our network of world clocks lost just one second in 140,000 years, it would throw your GPS position off by 300 metres.

Even our electricity grids are based on the accuracy of our world clocks.

The atomic clocks that keep our time accurate calculate time by measuring the change in energy states of atoms, usually caesium.

These clocks are so accurate they only lose one second every 100 million years. And as we develop ways to make these clocks even more accurate, everything else will become more accurate too.

Currently GPS is accurate down to a few metres. When GPS is combined with Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) it increases the accuracy by a few per cent.

A new European initiative called Galileo will increase this accuracy down to a few centimetres. This will make a huge difference for navigation, both on a personal and industry level.

For boats, driverless cars, farming, and especially for rail, which has very outdated signalling systems now, this will be huge.

Galileo is going to be fully functional by 2020, so it won’t be long until we can test its accuracy claims for ourselves. Meanwhile Both China and India are developing their own GPS-like systems.

The reason Europe started developing Galileo was because of the US’ restrictions on its own GPS network. Both the US GPS and Russian GLONASS are owned by the military. The US used to downgrade the accuracy of its GPS for civilians.

It only used to be accurate to within a few hundred metres – pretty useless. So Europe decided to create its own networks so that it wouldn’t have to rely on “the goodwill of countries like the US and Russia”.

Then in 2000 the US upped the accuracy of its civilian GPS and in 2007 stated its new satellites wouldn’t even let it ever downgrade the accuracy, even if it wanted to.

Still, this was well after other countries decided to create similar networks of their own. And in the end, it’ll be us – the consumer – that wins.

Or, I guess if you look at it a different way, it’s us that lose. This new location accuracy enable us to live even more precise and regimented lives.

It is quite astonishing to think we didn’t used to live as slaves to the clock. The next time you’re running late, or wish you could just go back to sleep when you wake up, or wish you had a little more time to do the things you enjoy… just remember who you have to thank for it: Christiaan Huygens.

But then have a look at your phone, hail your Uber, book that cheap flight from the comfort of your sofa while watching Netflix and remember Huygens also made all that possible too.

As freeing as it sounds at first, I don’t think I’d like to live in a world devoid of time and technology. Would you?

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

PS As you can probably guess, the clock on your computer is incredibly important for its programs to run properly. If you’re ever having a software problem you just can’t solve, or if something isn’t syncing when it should, check the time on your computer is right. Most of the time, this will fix it.