## How long is a moment?

Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

How long is a moment? This rather philosophical question used to have a literal answer:

For centuries, and as late as the early 19th century, a “moment” was something quite specific — a 40th of an hour, or around 90 seconds. But modern English doesn’t treat the word this way. It can mean the barest speck of time or it can stretch over hours, days, weeks — with so many different meanings that trying to pin it down might seem a fool’s errand. Sometimes, simply changing “a” to “the” truncates moments to instantaneity: “I seized the moment,” “The moment had come,” “That was the moment I knew.”

None of the online dictionaries I checked had that quantitative definition, but Wikipedia came to the rescue:

A moment (momentum) was a medieval unit of time. The movement of a shadow on a sundial covered 40 moments in a solar hour. An hour in this case means one twelfth of the period between sunrise and sunset. The length of a solar hour depended on the length of the day, which in turn varied with the season, so the length of a moment in modern seconds was not fixed, but on average, a moment corresponds to 90 seconds. A day was divided into 24 hours of both equal and unequal lengths, the former being called natural or equinoctial, and the latter artificial. The hour was divided into four puncta (quarter-hours), ten minuta, or 40 momenta.

The unit was used by medieval computists before the introduction of the mechanical clock and the base 60 system in the late 13th century. The unit would not 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.

The earliest reference we have to the moment is from the 8th century writings of the Venerable Bede, who describes the system as 1 hour = 4 points = 5 lunar points = 10 minutes = 15 parts = 40 moments. Bede was referenced five centuries later by both Bartholomeus Anglicus in his early encyclopedia De Propreitatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), as well as Roger Bacon, by which time the moment was further subdivided into 12 ounces of 47 atoms each, although no such divisions could ever have been used in observation with equipment in use at the time.