“The arrow of time obscures memory of both past and future circumstance with innumerable fallacies, the least trivial of which is perception.”
― Ashim Shanker, Only the Deplorable
Will military time be used in the future? Both the 12-hour clock and the 24-hour clock were intermittently used by cultures in the past. In the modern age, the practicality and utility of the 24-hour clock have resulted in use by a majority of countries. However, most English speaking countries have not officially adopted military time as their standard method of timekeeping. How has the concept of time shaped the world in the past? What effect does timekeeping have on the present? And how does military time fit into the future of timekeeping?
In order to appreciate military time’s potential use in the future, we must better understand its use in the past.
Past: 24-Hour Clock Origin
In the ancient world, the 24-hour clock originated from celestial timekeeping. Ancient Egypt was documented as the earliest civilization to develop a system of timekeeping. Dating back to 2100 BC, Early Egyptians used decans to keep time. First appearing on the lids of Egyptian coffins, decans were combinations of constellations that rose and set in the night sky and were used to reference the year as it passed. Total, there were 36 constellation combinations that represented a unique decan. Each decan lasted for 10 days, and this time frame made up the solar year for Early Egyptians.
East Asia also developed timekeeping methods based on astrological arrangements. The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) in China developed the Chinese zodiac system, which ultimately designated time of day, which was later developed into the modern day system, where designated animals are used to represent each year in a 12-year cycle. In relation to the decans used by the early Egyptians, the East Asian zodiac system used decans to represent a total of 36 calendar animals. In varying cases, the 36 animals were divided into four clusters that represented the four cardinal directions. In others, the 36 animals were divided into 3 animals groups assigned to one of the 12 zodiac signs. In the 14th century Japan, 36 animals also appeared on the calendar, though unlike the animals representing the Chinese zodiac, they all had “fox-like” faces. As early as 296 AD, ancient India also documented an astrological 24-hour timekeeping system.
Past: 12-hour Clock Origin
Both the 24-hour clock and the 12-hour clock originated within a similar time frame. The 12-hour clock dates back to Ancient Egypt, where the Early Egyptians used both a daytime sundial and a nighttime water clock. Each clock was divided into 12-hour increments and was used to keep the respective hour. In addition, the Ancient Romans developed a clock that divided “day time” into 12 equal lengths. However, the length of the 12-hour increments varied based on time of year.
Although Ancient Egypt, East Asia, and India have records of timekeeping dating back thousands of years, mechanical clocks were developed by the Europeans. However, as the history of timekeeping unfolds, it is clear that early civilizations were driven by astrological curiosity and an interest to better comprehend the workings of constellations and the heavens. In the modern day, science and technology have gathered valuable knowledge about the night sky, and time is no longer based upon it. What are the effects of more advanced methods of timekeeping, and how will that affect the future of the 24-hour clock?
For a more in-depth history of military time, click here.
Past: The Effect of Timekeeping on Civilization
As timekeeping developed in varying cultures during different time periods across the globe, the concept of time became an important societal concept, no matter the origin. In the modern day, the time has been standardized, but what effect has timekeeping had on civilizations in the past? What made timekeeping a crucial part of development?
Past: Clocks & Productivity
The first mechanical timekeeping mechanisms were developed in pre-industrial Europe during the late 13th Century. Similar to computers today, the mechanical clock was arguably one of the most important developments of the century. Notably, mechanical clocks have strongly impacted productivity by increasing the organization of labor division and production output , have transformed modernity, and have greatly contributed to the processes of the Industrial Revolution .
Though mechanical clocks had a positive economic effect on past cultures, it took time for cities to adapt to the use of this technology. As highlighted above, early timekeeping systems relied upon the sun and stars as an indicator of the hour. However, since the length of day is dependent on the time of year, hours and days varied between summer and winter. As a result, the technology was less reliable than the mechanical clock. As most cases of historical globalization, the transition was gradual. Many of the technological aspects of the mechanical clock existed leading up to the 14th century, but the introduction of a precise, regular hourly signaled to the growth of productivity over time .
In pre-industrial Europe, it was found that economic growth occurred as a result of indirect spillover effects caused by increased coordination in the marketplace, increased general productivity, and a gradual change in work ethic and culture . In the modern day, timekeeping and mechanical clocks are an integral part of the global marketplace and our daily lives. Although timekeeping is relatively standardized globally, English speaking countries use the 12-hour clock, while most of the world uses the 24-hour clock. Now that time is already an integral part of business and productivity, what are the benefits of using a 24-hour clock relative to a 12-hour clock?
Present: Benefits of a 24-Hour Clock
We won’t know whether or not military time will be used in the future until the future becomes the present. However, it is evident that the 24-hour clock is beneficial as indicated by the myriad of professions and countries that use the system. In the article 1500: Meaning & Conversion, I highlighted some of the major benefits of using military time over the 12-hour clock, and I’d like to reiterate them below.
- The 24-hour clock is less ambiguous. Rather than assigning the same number to two different times of day (e.g. 3 AM and 3 PM), the 24-hour clock assigns a unique number to each hour of the day. For some hours of the day, context clues help distinguish AM from PM, but for other times (e.g. 8 AM vs. 8 PM), the meaning can become more equivocal. By using the 24-hour clock (e.g. 8 AM vs. 20:00), the time of day is no longer open to interpretation.
- Many countries already use this system. Whether you are traveling for international business, vacation, or to visit friends and family, you will likely experience the use of the 24-hour clock abroad. This system can simplify your international experience. Transportation (trains, buses, flights), events, and even conversations with locals are saturated with critical pieces of information: the time!
- Many professions use this system. For example, medical professionals use this system so that the time a patient received medical care is clear, and the military uses it for precision and punctuality. My job as a U.S. Forest Service ranger uses it so that there is no room for interpretation regarding backcountry check-ins, and to relay messages to the district dispatch office. In addition, transportation systems, information technology, and of course, the military use this system.
If you are interested in learning military time, check out this resource.
Future & Conclusion:
“[Students] are used to seeing a digital representation of time on their phone, on their computer. Nearly everything they’ve got is digital, so youngsters are just exposed to time being given digitally everywhere.”
– Malcolm Trobe, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)
It’s impossible to definitively predict whether or not military time will be used in the future. Both the 24-hour and 12-hour clocks have stood the test of time; both were developed during ancient times and have been used intermittently by different cultures through the present day. However with the digitization of the modern world, and the decreasing use of analog clocks, military time has the basis to spread even further. In pre-industrial Europe, the development of mechanical clocks led to an inadvertent spike in economic growth due to the precision and regularity of the system.
As timekeeping became globally standardized, the benefits of the 24-hour clock have become apparent; it is less ambiguous than the 12-hour clock, a plethora of countries already use this system, and many professions, even in countries that use the 12-hour system, rely on the 24-hour clock. Because timekeeping is an integral part of daily life and the global market, there are no indicators that either system of timekeeping will become obsolete in the near future.
I would expect the use of military time to increase as individuals become more aware of the benefits and practical uses of the 24-hour clock. Will military time be used in the future? My vote is yes, but only time will tell.
 Landes, D. (1983): Revolution in Time. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
 Boerner, L. & Severgnini, B. (2015): Time for Growth. The London School of Economics and Political Science.