timed trivia roundup

A roundup of calendars, clocks, dating conventions, missing time, and lesser-known batman villains.

• • •

1. The AD/BC convention (now BCE/CE) dates back to 525 AD. Dionysius Exiguus, a Christian monk, was responsible for the computus, or the calculation of the date of Easter (which is based on the calendar year rather than the astronomical year and is so complicated it requires a 10,000 word wikipedia entry). As Exiguus performed his calculations, he was in the “Era of Martyrs”, in which the counting of years was based on the start of the rule of Diocletius.

In 303 AD, Diocletius was responsible for Rome’s last, and most deadly, Christian persecution. Dionysius, understandably displeased at having to date things to a person notorious for murdering Christians, proposed the alternative AD/BC split, basing year zero on his calculation of the “incarnation” of Jesus Christ—which, rather interestingly, he gave no explanation for. Though put forward in 525, the “AD” descriptor and system was not truly popularized until about the 8th century, when it was endorsed by Charlemagne (remember that name, it’ll be important later).

More here.

Interlude: a brief list of hypothesized events that may one day serve as the boundary point between AD and the next epoch: the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand; the launch of Sputnik; the time the Cuyahoga River caught fire; when Skynet becomes self-aware; the development of flame-broiling and/or brazier technology; Dr. Samuel Beckett’s first quantum leap; the virgin birth of the Kermit/Miss Piggy coupling; the OJ Simpson chase; that time Randy Johnson threw a pitch that hit a pigeon.

• • •

2. Question: just why exactly do cuckoo clocks exist? A classic origin story claims it as the idea of a clockmaker named Franz Anton Ketterer, from a small village near Germany’s Black Forest. Inspired by church organs, Ketterer developed a set of miniaturized pipes and bellows to produce the first cuckoo clock in 1730. Locals took notice, and the area soon became a center for clock making, with elaborate, hand-carved cuckoo clocks chief among its output.


This nicely idealized story is…idealized. Ketterer existed, made clocks, and was the first or among the first to add the bird-mimicking sounds; also, the Black Forest area did become a central hub of (cuckoo) clock making to such an extent that there’s now a cuckoo syndicate to control cuckoo quality standards. However, proto-versions of the cuckoo clock using simple wooden weights and springs date back to the 1630s in that area, and even by the late 1600s the entire region was known for its clock-making prowess. (Worth noting here: personal-sized clocks really only date back to about 1500, and the pendulum clock to 1656).

So my question splits into: why cuckoos, and why did the Black Forest become a horological flash point? There are only speculative answers, but both point to geography. Cuckoos were some of the first birds to begin singing with the onset of spring, and so were long associated with the passage of time. And residents of small farming villages around the forest would go to ground during harsh winters, making use of one of the few natural resources in the area by wood carving to pass the time. Later this became clock-making, which was also a way for people to make money when they didn’t have huge tracts of land but still had access to all that wood (non-first-born children received little by way of inheritance, so wood carving was a necessary trade). When winter ended, traveling salesmen—called “clock carriers”—would gather up the clocks as inventory, then travel around Europe selling them, later bringing back both profits and intel about new clock technologies to the forest dwellers.

antique german cuckoo clocks

So you had all of these artisans in one geographically concentrated area. You had a lot of them: in an 1808 census, clockmakers comprised nearly 10% of residents of one city. And they were all trying outdo each other. Right people, right place, right time, and thus did rural Germany become the epicenter of ornate, hand-carved clocks. And as a personal aside, what I really learned from all this is that actual cuckoo clocks can be really ornate and elaborate and cool, not just dumb kitschy things.

Sources are sparse and tertiary on this. Read more here and here and here, or just browse some cool antique clock pictures here.

• • •

3. Before spring-timed and pendulum clocks were created, probably the most common timekeeping device was a water clock, which measures time by the regular flow of water filling or draining from a container. Water clocks themselves might date back some 6000 years, but I want to discuss one in particular: the elephant clock designed by Ismail al-Jazari.

al-Jazari (born 1136 AD) was a Muslim polymath about whom little is known, beyond his book The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and his many, well, ingenious mechanical devices. Many of the devices he created or improved involved using water and/or water pumps to automate tasks. He invented pumps, camshafts, and crankshafts; a drink-serving waitress, an automatic flusher and hand-washer; an automated peacock hand-washing fountain (pull the tail once for water and a bar of soap, pull the tail a second time for more water and a towel); a floating four-person robot band; and an 11-foot tall castle clock that also recorded the phases of the moon and astronomical and astrological cycles.

floating robot band
floating robot band

So prolific were his inventions that he’s been called the father of both robotics and modern engineering, and the translator of his book suggested that “it is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of al-Jazari’s work in the history of engineering. Until modern times there is no other document from any cultural area that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines.”

An invention I did not yet mention is the elephant clock, designed around 1206. It is a water clock standing about 15 feet tall, depicting an elephant with a rider. The passage of each half hour was marked by a serpent releasing a ball from its mouth, the weight of which caused the elephant’s rider to bang a drum or cymbal and a model bird to chirp (much like a cuckoo clock!), thereby marking the time. There are two modern working recreations of the elephant clock, one in a mall in Dubai, and one at the watch museum in Switzerland. It’s bonkers, look at this thing:

original illustration and modern reproduction
original illustration and modern reproduction

I like to think about the context in which inventions or ideas were developed, and there’s some artful distillation of how time and place and context shape and constrain our ideas in this: the guy for whom elephants were relevant made an elephant clock, and the guy that lived in a forest made an elaborate wooden bird clock. Now guess where the guy who invented the vole clock lived (trick question: the vole clock is neither vole-shaped nor vole-powered, but a nifty way of dating geological strata based on the species of vole remains).

More here. Read the translation of al-Jazari’s book here.

• • •

4. Imagine there’s no heaven, imagine no possessions, and imagine that three centuries of human existence never actually happened. You might believe that last one, if you accept the phantom time hypothesis and simultaneously have a liberal definition of the word hypothesis.

The Julian calendar, adopted by the Roman empire in 45 BC, was about ten minutes too long. Every 128 years, the calendar picks up an extra day. By the 1500s, this deviation was causing problems for the church trying to celebrate Easter at the right time. An Italian astronomer named Aloysius Lilius, along with a haphazard committee, developed over the course of a decade a plan to reform the Julian calendar and bring the old and new calendars into alignment. Lilius died in 1576, the report was published in 1577, and in 1582 Gregory XIII issued a papal bull to adopt the new (Gregorian) calendar. And so in most of Europe, Thursday October 4th 1582 was followed by Friday October 15th, 1852.

Let’s do some math: if the Julian calendar gains a day every 128 years, and the transition came 1627 years later, the two calendars should have been thirteen days apart, not ten. Now let’s say you know that medievalists, as a collective, have long struggled with misdated, backdated, postdated, and otherwise fraudulent documents. And let’s say that if you squint hard enough, you find strange things like a multi-century hiatus in the construction of Constantinople. And with the right kind of eyes, and if you are Heribert Illig and/or Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz and/or Lionel Hutz, you look at those disparate strands and reach this inevitable conclusion: the years 614-911 AD never happened. Three entire centuries were fabricated, and we are actually living in the year 1719.

this all goes back to ben affleck, and the freemasons
this all goes back to ben affleck, and the freemasons

Now, it turns out that when you develop a radical hypothesis about the wholesale fabrication of three centuries of human existence based entirely around explaining away an apparent calendrical error and some gray areas in the dating of thousand-year-old documents, you wind up raising more questions than you answer. You might be thinking: hey, wait a second…what about, like, Charlemagne? Oh, Charlemagne. Right. Yeah, he never existed. Along with several dozen popes and four antipopes. The whole Carolingian dynasty, in fact, never existed.

It really gives you something to chew on, doesn’t it? But wait, you’re now thinking, the period of 614-911 also encompasses vast swaths of the Byzantine empire. And the classic period of Maya civilization. And the Visigoths, don’t forget the Visigoths. Also the life of Mohammed and the Islamic expansion. Also the Tang dynasty and their meticulously recorded logs of astronomical activity including three periods of Halley’s comet and wait shouldn’t Halley’s comet have gotten out of sync with the calendar because of the shift? Was all of this invented by papal bull and reified by an elaborate transnational conspiracy, you ask? Oh, buddy, that’s easy to explain. You see, <backs out of door, gets in car, drives away>.

More here.

• • •

5. I only read a few of the comics as a kid, but I have to mention my favorite lesser-known Batman villain: Calendar Man. He wore this ridiculous costume:


And confused batman in a whirlwind of calendar pages:


Apparently in the later, darker series, Calendar Man becomes a Hannibal Lecter-like figure, dispensing advice from prison. Now, please enjoy this amusing list of comically ineffectual comics villains. It includes, among others, Colonel Computron and a guy who wears a giant pencil eraser on his head.


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