Why 'time' uses the sexagesimal system of counting

Originally published at: Why 'time' uses the sexagesimal system of counting | Boing Boing


I think the decimalization of the metric system has an appeal, but if we went sexagesimal it’d be easier to hold in our heads. 60 has three more divisors than 100, and that’s super useful because thirds is one of them, and being able to divide into thirds without needing repeating decimals is super convenient.


OK, but still unexplained is why, when we use the numbers 1 through 12 for the hours, 12 represents the lowest value, 1 the second-lowest, and so forth up to a max of 11. (I know what you’re thinking – Spinal Tap reference! But no, the timing is wrong, much as “The Roof is on Fire” can’t be a reference to the West Philly Move bombing, because the song happened a couple of years earlier.)

The craziness of our measuring systems is widely recognized, but no stable society would give up the familiar way for something that would have been better in the first place. The wonderful book The Measure of All Things, which describes the creation of the metric system, shows that no country has ever gone metric except after a revolution (aside from the U.K., which merely had its vast empire stripped away). The révolutionnaires who rationalized measurement at the foot of the guillotine tried to fix time as well, but that was too much even for those times. In that light, I hope our time system never gets fixed. But it sure sucks.

Edited to add: several people have pointed out that this is pretty dubious. It would be interesting if true, but it seem it probably isn’t.


I always assumed it was because it makes it easy to divide by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10.


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Here in Brexitland we used to have 12 pence in a shilling, but 20 shillings in a pound. Strangely, three pounds (60 Shillings) was not a noted/specific unit. It ought to have been.

(The UK went metric as a result of having “its vast empire stripped away”? Ooookaaaay…)

In addition to the book noted by @JohnEightThirty The General Rule by Vivian Linacre and About The Size of It by Warwick Cairns are both instructive and entertaining reads about how and why we measure things the way we do.


We could switch to metric time, but then we’d still have twelve months, unless. . . .


reminds me of this little short,


In case you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend R. A. Lafferty’s The Six Fingers of Time.



Canada went metric without a revolution, and not because of being a member of the Commonwealth either. We did it because the rest of the world uses it as a common shared measuring system.
Even the US military uses it because it allows quick and simple calculations of distance, mass and speed. More importantly they use it because all of their allies do and there would be no multinational military interoperability without it.


Sure, but first you need to invent 50 more symbols and persuade everyone to count in that base. I suspect you’d have more luck with base 12, which is a much closer superior highly composite number to what people are use to.


The benefit of the decimal system is that the same base is used throughout, which makes conversions and derived units trivial to use. There’s an argument to use a better base, and 12 would be a good candidate (being a superior highly composite number), but to actually be adopted you’d need to persuade everyone to change their counting system to be base 12 too.


I mean, we can still use decimal digits, just like we do with time. It’s just that in my model, one meter would be composed of 60 heximeters. Each heximeter would be composed of 60 hexiheximeters (we can play with the prefixes, I don’t know Greek).


Came here to say this. Thanks, buddy!

The switch happened when I was in grade 5, so a little over 50 years ago. I’m fully fluent in temperature & velocity. Semi-fluent in mass. Still have a hard time with lengths though. I love working on CNC stuff in mm, but I’m still mostly inch/foot when carpentering and hobbying about in my garage.

I figure another couple of generations before Imperial units are gone except for the rarest cases*. My adult children learned mostly metric and how to convert from Imperial to metric. But around the house they often use Imperial, mostly due to me.

*Except penis measurements. They will always be inch units.


I think I love this. Why is this not the way?


Because having 13 months would be “unlucky.”


I seem to recall the schools in my part of the country started teaching us some of the metric system in about 1962 or '63. They were also teaching the different bases in arithmetic, including binary - someone was really thinking ahead.
I’m pretty good with conversions between inches, feet, yards and miles to metric. I use metric in my security consulting because municipalities require it. I also write door hardware schedules; the door sizes are always in mm and I use metric measurements for everything that attaches to the door and frame.
Here’s another odd convergence: one furlong (still used in horse racing) is 1/8 of a mile or almost exactly 1/5 of a km.


When I was in elementary school, one of the teachers asked the class how many weights you’d need to weigh any object between 1 gram and 1kg on a balance in 1 gram increments. The answer they were looking for was ten, because of binary. 1, 2, 4, etc, up to 1024. My answer was 7. 1, 3, 9, 27, 81, 243, 729. To weigh a two gram object, put the 1 weight in the scale with the object against the 3. You can do this for any weight as long as you can put weights on the same side as the object you’re weighting.

I learned later that this is called “balanced base 3”.

But the teacher hated my answer and the whole class laughed at me.

Damn people’s irrational hatred of balanced bases.


You’re skirting around the core of the problem for sure. 12 is indeed a “superior highly composite number” as you said but it rubs up against the fact that we only got 5 digits on each hand. Damn you, nature, damn you!!

I saw ‘ Sexage’ and took time to read this.

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The Yankistani public elementary school taught us different base systems. They sorta taught us about the metric system (and oh, the empathy I now have for the Canadian kid who appeared in 2nd or 3rd grade!)…but each time it was brief and superficial AF. Everyone talked about it outside of class, which almost shocks me thinking about it. Vanishingly few of these kids had abstract, let alone intellectual discussions, not even by 6th grade (11-12 yrs old). It was weird: there were knots of kids in our grade in the halls, all asking each other, “Do you get this metric stuff?” “Well, it’s easy enough to use the metric side of a ruler, but I can barely see the millimeter marks.” “Hey, are you guys talking about the metric system, too?” “Yeah.” “So were we. How are we supposed to remember all the formulas to convert all that stuff?!” “You guys talking about metric?” “Yeah.” “So were we…” Thus the knots turned into pools, w/everyone asking everyone else all kinds of questions we felt we couldn’t ask, or only just figured out what/how to ask etc during class. A whole new system of measuring damn near everything was suddenly thrown at us immediately after our teachers had at long last crystallized w/in our youthful brains Yankistan’s most commonly used measurements system. Calling it very confusing and a little traumatic would not be hyperbole. I must not have been the only one who was grateful that all our math books every year did include all the arcane conversion formulæ.