Minutes Didn’t Matter in the Regency

Really! Hardly anyone in the Regency cared about minutes. Nor had anyone, anywhere, cared about these small measurements of time, throughout all of time, until just a few short years after the death of George IV, the erstwhile Prince Regent. Since then, nearly everyone pays attention to the minutes.

A brief summary of the measurement of time, what that meant for denizens of the Regency, and when and why the minute became important.

The concept of dividing the hour into sixty minutes was developed by the Sumerians over 4,000 years ago. However, this concept remained primarily theoretical until the mid-nineteenth century. The ancients measured time with sundials and water clocks. Later, hourglasses and mechanical clocks were introduced. But not a single one of these devices measured minutes. Keeping track of the hours was the best they could do, and for the people of those times, it was all they needed. In fact, the first mechanical clocks did not even have hands, they were actually designed to ring a bell on the hour. The Latin word for bell is clocca, which is the source of our word "clock." These early bell "clocks" were most commonly found in church towers, as the clergy needed the bells to call them to their various prayers throughout the day. Those working on the land would tell time by the position of the sun overhead and had no need of any time-keeping devices.

The first mechanical clocks with dials and hands were developed in the early 1500’s. Those clocks only had one hand however, because the minutes were still of no importance. The first clock maker to add a minute hand to his clocks was Jost Burgi, in 1577, though it was primarily considered a curiosity. By the seventeenth century, minute hands on clocks had become usual, as they helped to show how far along the hour had advanced. People might make an appointment to meet a friend at half-past the hour, but they did not set the meeting time for 2:30, for example, as we might today. Right through the mid-nineteenth century, most mechanical clocks were made to chime on the quarter hour, the half-hour and the three-quarter hour. There was as yet no need for any finer division of an hour.

People living in the Regency did, as people had for centuries, consider and use time in smaller increments than a full hour, but these sub-divisions of an hour were usually estimates. For example, a cake might have to bake for thirty to forty minutes, but there were no kitchen timers, so the cook simply estimated the time and checked her baking cake more frequently when she knew it was close to done. There were some occasions when precise timing was necessary, such as for those engaged in scientific experimentation. For such purposes, there were specialty clocks and watches which had not only minute, but second hands. But these exceptional devices were rare and extremely expensive.

The importance of the minute came to England on iron wheels. By the mid-1830s, train travel was expanding throughout Britain and it became clear that in order to accommodate passengers at many stations along a line, schedules must be set, and kept. The Royal Mail and the numerous stage coaches which had traveled the roads of England through the years of the Regency also had schedules to keep, and for the most part, they did so very successfully. But they did not travel at the high speeds which required their schedules to be measured to the minute. Such was not the case with the railway schedules. Not only did these new vehicles travel at much higher speeds, they were restricted to the rails upon which they ran. They could not pull to the side of the road to allow another vehicle to pass. Therefore, the schedule for each train must be timed to the minute, to ensure reliable service and the efficient use of the railway system. For railroad travellers, minutes mattered a great deal. If a train was scheduled to depart at 10:13, a potential passenger had better not arrive at the station at a quarter past, or they would find that the train had left without them.

Minutes were not used during the Regency with the same precision with which we use them today. A Regency gentleman might fix an appointment to drive in Hyde Park with a young lady on the hour, but they both knew that was not exact. A hostess might invite guests to her dinner party for half past the hour, while asking her closest friends to arrive at quarter past. Recipes would not specify that a cake or a pie was to be baked for thirty-five or forty minutes, rather it would have suggested baking for a half to three-quarters of an hour. The schedule for the departure of the London coach to Dover might be listed as on the hour or the half-hour, but it would not list a departure time, for example, as 7:43. Only those involved in scientific observation or experimentation would measure time precisely by minutes, or even seconds. Everyone else just ignored those small increments of time. Today, not only trains, but planes, buses and boats require we pay close attention to the minutes. The movie multiplex is a minute-explicit domain, a practice also employed by many television and radio programs. Oh, for those minute-oblivious Regency days!

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to Minutes Didn’t Matter in the Regency

  1. Linda Banche says:

    I love reading about time.

    From reading your post, I assume they spoke of time as “half past two” rather then “two thirty” as we do now.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are right. They would say “half past two” or they might just say “half two.”

      Most people did not express time using both the hour and the minutes as we do today until after the advent of the railroads. Those same railroads also brought us the time zone, another feature of time with which the Regency did not have to deal. During that decade, everyone lived by their own local time, reckoned by the sun, just as they had for centuries.

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