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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Why the hour’s dividers are called minutes and minute’s dividers are called seconds?

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Perhaps some reader has ever asked about so seemingly irrelevant question as the origin of the names "minute" and "second", the time’s dividers, but any knowledge is valuable.

History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine "Firsts" in Recorded History (1956)  is the title of a famous work of Noah Kramer published in the fifties of the last century. The Sumerians were pioneered on writing, astronomy, mathematics, etc.. Egyptians learned a lot from them and from both (Sumerians and their descendants in the area, Babylonians, Persians, etc.., and Egyptians) learned Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples.

In Sumer there is any indication of a numeral system with five as the base, quinary, undoubtedly related to the five fingers. They also used a dozenal (duodecimal) system with base twelve,  base-12;  (they had it pointing with the thumb three phalanges in each of the remaining four fingers); it is related to the twelve moons of the year ... They used also a decimal system, denary ),base-10, associated with the ten hand’s fingers.

Interestingly also they  used a sexagesimal system,  (base 60)  but we do not know exactly its origin. It is thought that this system facilitated the equivalence between the decimal and dozenal (duodecimal), since the divisors of 60 are 1, 2, 3, 4,5, 6, 10, 12, 20, 30, 60.

Well, from the dozenal (duodecimal) and sexagesimal systems, from the Sumerians approaches  and  Egyptian and Greek , it was established  the division of time in hours, these in minutes, and these in seconds. And this is the system that we employed.

The same system is applied to the division of space.

So the current measures of the angles in degrees and minutes, this one of the clock face or timing measure, and this one of the earth orb  globe with latitude and longitude coordinates,  have their origin in the numeral system invented by the Sumerians and Babylonians 4,000 years ago.

Eratosthenes, Greek mathematician and astronomer (c. 276-194 BC) used the sexagesimal system to divide the circle into 60 parts or degrees (the Latin word gradus means step) and created the horizontal parallel lines from east to west to indicate the latitude.

A century later Hipparchus created a system of vertical lines going from north to south, dividing the sphere into 360 degrees.

At mid-second century A.D. Ptolemy developed the work of Hipparchus and divided the 360 degrees each one  into 60 smaller parties in his work  “Almagest”.  These fractions are called "partes minutae primae", ie, "first small parts." Again he fractionated  these first parts into  other smaller  60, and he called these "partes minutae secundae ", ie "second small parts."

The first fraction, the "partes minutae primae" ended up being called "minutae", "small", from where we derive our word "minute".

The second fraction, "partes minutae secundae", "second small parts", ended up being called "secundae", and from this  were  derive the  word  "second".

Note: Ptolemy wrote his work  in Greek and it is named Μαθηματικὴ Σύνταξις (Mathematike Syntax), Mathematical Composition. In Latin it was known as Syntaxis mathematica. It was then called 'Ἡ Μεγάλε Σύνταξις' He Megale Syntaxis, Great syntax, the Great Treatise.

The superlative of Greek adjective μεγάλε, megale, great, big,  is μεγίστη, μέγιστος, megiste, megistos, (the greatest, the largest). The word Almagest is the Arabized form, with  presenter or article "al-", of the Greek superlative μεγίστη: al-Majisti (المجسطي). Gerard of Cremona translated this book from Arabic into Latin in the famous school of Toledo in 1175, which won a great importance in European scientific world.

Moreover, the division of hours into sixty minutes and minutes into sixty seconds only became widespread in use much later, when the man was able to build mechanical clocks to mark  that duration, ie, from the sixteenth century , XVII ...

It is still an interesting curiosity how in the necessary division of the seconds we do not longer use the sexagesimal  system but the decimal : we talk with  tenths and hundredths and thousandths of a second

Serve this current coexistence of numbering systems as evidence of possible coexistence also of the dozenal (duodecimal)  system, the decimal and sexagesimal in ancient Sumer.

I'll talk another time about the division of time  in hours by  Greeks and Romans . It is enough now to know that in Greek mythology, Ὣραι (Horai) were originally goddesses who  marked the passing of the seasons and they have evolved to be twelve, each one for the twelve divisions of the day.


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