How Long Is A Moment? Z

How Long Is A Moment?

We are used to using the term 'a moment' when we want to refer to an instant or a very short portion of time in relation to another but how long is a moment?

Expressions like 'Wait a moment, I'll be right back, 'I'll have the job finished in a moment' or 'Wait a moment, I'll take care of you in short' (to give just a few examples) are frequently used by any of us, but do you really know How long is 'a moment'? What specific duration should we give to that portion of time that we know as 'a moment'? how long should we wait when someone tells us to wait a moment? Let's clarify it right away here.

Did you ever wonder how long is a moment?

If someone says, "Wait a moment," they are asking us to wait an indeterminate amount of time that can vary from a few seconds to, who knows, a few centuries. But in the Middle Ages, a moment was a very precise unit of time, according to this tweet from the Fermat's Library Twitter account, which has more than 550,000 followers:


A Moment was a medieval unit of time. 1 day was divided into 24 hours and 1 hour was equal to 12 lengths of the period from sunrise to sunset. The hour was divided into 4 puncta, 10 minuta, or 40 momenta. Considering an average of 12 solar hours:

1 moment = 90 seconds 🤓 " — Fermat's Library (@fermatslibrary)

This definition goes back to Bede the Venerable, an English Benedictine monk of the 8th century. It sounds very accurate and almost makes you want to get angry the next time a moment doesn't last those 90 seconds. But although in the Middle Ages the concept of "moment" was very well defined, the truth is that its duration was not so exact either. It could change even depending on the time of year. And there was no reliable way to measure it.

How did they measure time in the Middle Ages?

Historians explain that precision in the Middle Ages should not be taken into account as it is now. The weather at that time responded to agricultural tasks because it was an agrarian world. That is to say, these are very basic divisions determined by what nature is offered. The day, the night, the seasons...

The means that existed to measure time were rudimentary and inherited from the Greco-Latin world, as Jacques LeGoff writes in Medieval Civilization, “incapable of measuring the time that can be measured, times that can be put into figures”, but adapted to their needs.

Candles were also used where an ordinary candle was estimated to last about four hours. Sometimes small screws were inserted to divide it. When the wax was consumed and the screw fell off, it was known that a certain amount of time had passed. In any case, none of these means would serve to accurately measure a moment.


And how did they know what time it was?

There were sundials and, if the sun went down, the chimes of the church "marked the times of the services attended by the clergy, especially the monks", which are the old Roman hours more or less Christianized, as Robert Fossier explains in Medieval People.

These so-called canonical hours were: prime, at the beginning of the day (which would be equivalent to 6 in the morning in Europe in spring); Terce (at nine), Sext (at noon), None (at 3 p.m.), Vespers (at 6 p.m.). At night there was Compline (at 9 pm), Matins (around midnight), and Laude, three hours before Prime. The night hours were measured with the clepsydra, which was based on the time it takes for the water to fall from one vessel to another.

That is, the day was divided into 12 hours and the night into another 12. This meant, as Fossier recalls, that the length of each hour "was necessarily unequal according to the seasons." In some parts of America, for example, we can have 8 hours of light at the beginning of winter and 18 hours at the beginning of summer The 12 hours of the day in winter (artificial calls because they were measured with the artifice of the clock) passed in the eight natural hours of sunlight In summer the opposite happened: these hours were longer.

That is, the moments so well defined by Bede would be longer during summer days and shorter in winter, assuming that they could be measured with a sundial.

Even so, this was not a major inconvenience. If they had to meet, for example, to start a trip, it was common to do it at dawn, I. e., at prime time. If they had to see each other at another time, they could follow the indications of the chimes. The confusion came later when mechanical watches appeared and began to break down.

Since when does an hour last an hour?

There were already mechanical clocks from the 13th century. Many were installed in cathedrals and, later, in town halls. Some had only an hour hand, and others displayed astronomical data, such as the phase of the moon, or included moving figures, often of saints, angels, and church fathers. With them, the quarter hours and half hours begin to be marked, although not with the current precision.

The diffusion of mechanical clocks and their "natural" hours of equal duration ended up affecting the habits of citizens, although light continued to be the determining factor when organizing the day. To begin with, there were only clocks on a few buildings in the city, so everyone could see when the sun rose or set. But also because until the advent of electricity there was little point in trying to get to work before dawn or at night.

Clocks begin to affect time control when work begins to generate income and commerce increases. You have to count the time in another way to improve production, make the most of it, and establish the hours of work and rest.

Watches were becoming necessary, but not very common. There was a conflict in the sixteenth century in a town in Palencia at the time of installing a clock. Some wanted it to be in one parish, others in another... Finally, it was decided that it had to be in the parish near the inns, where the walkers arrived. In addition, it was heard throughout the town and, as we would say today, a better public service was provided.

Mechanical watches began to count minutes and seconds reliably in the 17th century. We could have dedicated ourselves to measuring moments, but luckily Bede's definition was forgotten. We are already controlled enough not to be able to enjoy any moment of tranquility, however long it lasts.


How much was a moment according to the Egyptian civilization?

There was a moment in history when a part of humanity was very clear about how long it lasted.

Thanks to documented evidence of the use of sundials, most historians credit the Egyptian civilization with dividing the day into smaller parts.

From at least 1500 B.C. they had already divided time with light into 12 parts. The night took longer, but by 1400 B.C., with the periods between sunrise and sunset, and those between dusk and dawn divided into a dozen parts each, the concept of a 24-hour day took root.

The thing was, those hours weren't the same all year long in places with four seasons, where the Sun can rise at times as different as 3:00 a.m. in summer or at 9:00 a.m. in winter.

Although the astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus of Nicaea proposed between 147 and 127 B.C. dividing the day into 24 equinoctial hours - when there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness - ordinary people continued to use hours that varied according to the season for many centuries. (Fixed-length hours became common only after mechanical clocks first appeared in Europe during the 14th century.)

The fact is that the movement of the shadow in a sundial covered 40 moments during a solar hour. But since the hour did not have a fixed duration during the year, neither did the moments. However, on average, a moment lasted 90 of our seconds (Yes, for the Egyptians too).

From hours to atoms

The first reference to that system was found in the writings of the learned Benedictine monk Bede the Venerable mentioned above (c. 672 - May 27, 735), who recorded that:

1 hour = 4 points = 5 lunar points = 10 minutes = 15 parts = 40 moments.

By the time the Franciscan philosopher, proto scientist, and scholastic theologian Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) described units of time, some changes had been introduced.

Trying to understand them, I turn to the anonymous astrological work "Repertory of the times", printed in Valladolid in 1554.

It explains that the calendar day had been divided into 4 quadrants. Similarly, the hour was divided into four parts called points that "are what ordinary people call quarters of an hour."

Each of these points was distributed in moments and: "Anyone of the moments already mentioned divided the ancients into twelve parts, which they called uncias."

Finally, "Each one of the uncias divided into forty-four parts, which they called athomos, a Greek word that means 'indivisible' or 'impartible'".

So each hour contained 4 quadrants, 40 moments, 480 units, and 22,560 atoms.

From 40 to 60

None of these units of time would have been used in everyday life. For medieval commoners, the main marker of the passage of time was the call to prayer at intervals throughout the day.

This state of affairs continued well into the 16th century, with clocks often dividing an hour into halves or quarters.

Once clocks and other timekeeping technologies began to become more advanced and accurate, the 60-minute time replaced the 40-minute time.

Although it is not known why 60 was chosen, it is very convenient for expressing fractions, since 60 is the smallest number divisible by the first six counting numbers, as well as by 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30, while 40 moments could only be divided by 2,4,5 and 10.

But the moment was still alive.


For an instant

The system had changed so that the hour had been divided into four quarters. Each of them contained 15 minutes instead of 10 moments and those minutes were divided into 60 moments, seconds, or instants, as John Brady explains in his "Clavis Calendaria" (1812).

Soon, though, the moment began to take on that wonderful springy quality we know.

"The three different terms were given to the smallest fraction of duration, although synonymous in meaning, in ordinary usage, when applied to express a purpose, are not considered the same," says Brady.

And he explains the difference in this way:

"A prudent man will pause for a moment before undertaking anything of importance; a less experienced person will not think for a second, and a fool will not think for a moment."

How long is a moment today?

Today, the "moment" is no longer a system of measurement as in the medieval era and there is no consensus about it. You can ask different people, and you will get so many different answers. It also depends on the context (that phrase "the moment froze" when something extraordinary happens, or "everything happened in the blink of an eye" when they were strong events followed one after another, and the mind does not have the capacity to process them all together).

However, my opinion is that if I were asked how long is a moment? I would say it can go from 1 to 5 minutes, I mean, it will be something related to almost an immediate moment (I am not sure if it will be exactly 90 seconds). But what do you think about it? How long is a moment for you? You can tell me your opinion in the comments section if you want 🙂