Background:As humans throughout history, we've been trying to make a time telling device. It makes sense, too, you'd want to know what time to plan and arrive at certain events. With that in mind, let's imagine a society without them.

Context: In this society, they're highly against time telling devices (sundials, water clocks, watches, etc.) but still use the day/night cycle to give them an idea of what time it may be. Instead of saying "Arrive here at 3:00," these people would say "Arrive here once the Sun is in the middle of the sky". And secondly, these people, as their society advances more and more, would want people to be on time for specific events; rather than being there within an hour or two of the designated time.

Question: Would a society like this be able to enforce people to arrive at certain events with only the Sun in the sky as reference, no way to tell time with a clock or measure the position of the Sun with anything but their eyes?

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    $\begingroup$ How much precision do you require? +/- (hour, half-hour, 15 minutes)? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure how you expect them to estimate the position of the sun in the sky without looking at the shadow of a stick. Do you expect people to look directly at the sun with their naked eyes several times a day, every day of their lives? So that everybody is blind by the time they reach 20 years of age? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ The average person more or less didn't bother with exact times for most of human history. "Mid-day" was a perfectly acceptable time to arrive or start or whatever. Universal exact time keeping is maybe only 200 years old. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that your question is self-defeating as written, if taken literally. You say your people are "highly against time telling devices", yet also that they "still use the day/night cycle to give them an idea of what time it may be". The sun is thus being used as a time telling device, even if your people didn't create it; it breaks suspension of disbelief for them to reject sundials at that point. Furthermore, you state that your society "would want people to be on time for specific events", which violates the basic premise against telling time by asking for a specific time. $\endgroup$
    – Palarran
    Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ In this society, they're highly against time telling devices WHY? $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 21:09

9 Answers 9


I'm going to posit a hard NO on this one. Time telling isn't just about getting somewhere at the same instant, it's actually synonymous with science. There are a lot of things that you can't do without accurate time telling.

Update This answer is getting a lot of flack because society did just fine without complex time-telling devices until the 1600's. Time telling is not as critical as mathematics or record keeping. From that perspective, the question should probably be "How advanced could a society get without time-keeping devices?"

To my knowledge, the critical need for time keeping was actually in tracking work hours. Realistically, you can't even get away with "you will work until I tell you you're done" with slaves. Earliest case of this was 1300BC. The Greeks and Romans both had legally defined system of seasonal hours. As such, you could say that the history of time-telling is tied to the history of labor negotiations.

You also need to ask how tightly you want to define "time keeping." Nothing tighter than hours was used before the 1500's, but there's arguments either way about how useful it would have been if they'd have had it. You also have to ask if calendaring counts as time-keeping in their view.


It's impossible to tell where you are, east-west, without knowing what time it is. Every day, the captain would spot the sun when it rose. He would compare that with the time, and that would tell him his longitude.

Baking and construction

If you can't keep track of how long your cookies are in the oven, you will burn your cookies. There's more to this, though. You need some sense of time to allow cement to properly mix without prematurely setting. The Romans couldn't have built their aqueducts without some kind of clock, or at least an hour glass. This can also be extended to brewing, soaking seeds for germination, etc., etc..


This is probably the point that your society will fall. You can't formulate the mathematics of thrown objects without tracking time, so you lose the ability to design quite a lot of simple machinery. Any civilization that tried to enforce this would be readily conquered by a civilization that didn't have such an issue with trebuchets.

Going around the issue

You can guarantee that, if you forbade them from doing so on purpose, they would do so "accidentally." This would involve building their houses in such a way that they could use the edges of it against the terrain to tell what time it was, or just parking their cart so that it would go into shadow at "closing time."

  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 19:20

Oh yes, definitely.

We know this because our own civilisation has been able to enforce it.

Creating a reliable time-measuring device which is also portable is just very difficult, and was only solved in the 18th century, and of course these accurate clocks did not become affordable to a common man until much later still. Prior to that, clocks were found mostly in central locations in towns and cities, where only a rather small minority of people lived, and the countryside-dwelling majority could indeed only measure the passage of time by observing natural events.

And for most purposes, this was enough. If you wanted to announce the beginning of some important activity, like say the Sunday mass, then you would make some noise - ring a big brass bell hanging high up in the church's tower, for instance. Even in the context of industrial revolution, when turning up to work at a specific hour regardless of all other considerations became important, you would have knocker-ups, people waking others up by knocking on their doors or windows. (Often these were night watchmen, who were awake at night anyway, making some additional money on the side.)

Now sure the priest and the knocker-up would need some form of time measurement, but here's the thing: they would not necessarily need to know what time it is, but only how much time has passed since some event, natural or man-made, that anyone could observe. In this way they could still accurately measure the passage of time with devices such as hourglasses, and get by without a clock telling them the instantaneous time.

Oh and I would expect the occupations involved with measuring time to develop tight-knit guilds, closely guarded trade secrets (it would help them greatly to know exactly how much sooner or later does the Sun set each day compared to the equinox, for instance, which itself would vary depending on how far away from the equator you live), and something of a supernatural aura in the eyes of others.

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    $\begingroup$ And in any event, there were societies of various kinds long before there were timekeepers- or even the use of materials suitable for making them. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2023 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ Even when clocks were rare and expensive, they had bells that could be heard from much greater distance than the clock could be seen from. Even in the countryside, before the introduction motor vehicles, a town (or church) clock's bells would have been audible for a substantial distance. $\endgroup$
    – The Photon
    Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 0:54

This is a Frame Challenge

The first timekeeping devices on Earth were via the ancient Egyptians circa 1,500 B.C. That would be the practical limit of your civilization's development. From that point forward, timekeeping for any reason was deemed critical enough to deserve someone putting enough thought into it to develop the sundial.

But could it be done? Ignore history. Could it be done?


Without the development of timekeeping devices, it isn't reasonable for someone to expect to hold an event at a precision time. How would they know to do it? Locally (as in within, say, 100 km of any given event) there are only three times per day (daylight) that can be set with reasonable precision without the aid of timekeeping devices: Sunrise, Sunset, and Noon. Maybe... maybe... it's possible to hold an event at halfway between sunrise and noon, and halfway between noon and sunset... maybe... and meet your expectations. But any event expecting to be more precisely scheduled and attended than that is impossible.

Worse, those three times vary by latitude, longitude, and time of the year. The the further in advance you set an event and the further away you expect people to attend, the less likely any of those moments during a day can be plausibly precise.

But, to complete my Frame Challenge, what's stopping me from using me as a timekeeping device?

Finally, what's stopping me from being my own timekeeping device? What's the difference between a sundial and me, standing still for 30 minutes, and knowing how shadows work during the course of a year in my area?

When you say no timekeeping devices... I'm holding you to your word. Your people don't know or don't want to know how to keep precision time in any way shape or form. The second somebody comes up with a clever way of doing it without creating a device, your question's veracity falls apart because what was just invented was a timekeeping procedure, and the only difference between that and a device is the invention of a convenient device so (e.g.) you don't have to stand still for thirty minutes.

So, no. Can't be done.

  • The desire for precision is the desire for timekeeping. You can't have one without, eventually, the other.

  • Societal development (technologically and culturally) must stagnate (for some reason) without timekeeping devices.

  • The moment someone figured out how to do it without creating a device, they created a device. The person's ability to observe the heavens with enough accuracy to meet your expectations makes them the device. After that it's just "I'd rather be drinking a beer in the shade talking to my friend while something or someone else does the timekeeping."

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    $\begingroup$ I fully agree with the last part. Humans tend to be good at noticing time. OK, maybe not each individual but enough of them in a society. They can notice a lot of things - when the rooster crows, when the cat wants to be fed, when the human themselves feels hungry, when the sun goes behind that hill behind the house to re-emerge later. All of these are patterns. And humans are quite good at noticing and identifying patterns. You need a device only to synchronise easily with others. But each person can still keep time themselves. Especially if they often do routine tasks. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 16:48

In Northern Brazil, at a certain time of the year, a quick but huge burst of rainfall in the early afternoon is regular enough that people schedule their appointments "after the rain".

As a raw idea, there may be visible natural phenomena other than the sun cycle that gives your people a fine sense of time without any devices.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this, but the question specifies "only the Sun in the sky as reference". $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2023 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelRichardson I'm not sure if the asker meant literally only the sun as reference. I figured they meant "only observations of obvious natural phenomena such as the sun in the sky." $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 19, 2023 at 21:11

Timekeeping as an occupation

Take Computers as an example. Until the Second World War, "Computer" was not a device - it was a job. When there was enough demand for quick and complex calculations, some people specialized in that.

Your society will therefore see a rise of professionals, who know the exact time - the Timekeepers. They will use various mental tricks and skills to measure different amounts of time. A mantra, that takes precisely one minute to tell. A walk around the town square, taking precisely half an hour. Things like that.

Since timing devices are a taboo, they will need to time their skills with the guidance of other Timekeepers. Expect a guild to form, just like with any other trade. In the beginning, they may simply sit on city squares and tell the precise time for a penny. But when technology advances, more and more precise measurements will be necessary (e.g. for chemistry and metallurgy) and the guild will accumulate a lot of influence.


No, it's not practical to tell time with such precision without instruments. For starters, if it were, people would probably do that. Two key problems you will run into are angular resolution, and adjusting for axial tilt.

Problem 1 is that you need an accurate measurement of where the sun is in the sky. The difference between "on time" and "15 minutes late" is only a few degrees of arc, and it's hard to even look directly at the sun to make your measurements. Humans aren't very good at determining angles without landmarks either, and there's nothing visible in the sky to compare the sun with. Conventionally, you could use a sextant to obtain quite precise measurements but your people aren't allowed.

Problem 2 is that if your planet is like Earth, it will have seasons. Both the length of the day and the path that the sun takes through the sky vary, and how much they vary depends on your latitude. Trying to adjust your time measurements off the cuff won't be very accurate, and looking it up in an almanac every time you want to tell time would be impractically inconvenient.

Problem 3 is, what happens if it's overcast? Everyone takes the day off?

  • $\begingroup$ "if it were, people would probably do that." I've done that. And it's not that big of a deal. When I was a kid we didn't have watches outside. We still managed to tell whether it was morning or afternoon. And to meet up at specific times. Not too specific of times but like "lunch time at the park" and people would show up around the same time. High precision of time keeping is useful but not mandatory. Depends on what you want to do with it. Note that as kids we didn't really have much else to do anyway, so if there is nothing super urgent you can do fine without a time keeping device. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 16:51

If you look at our own history, you find that there was in fact resistance to changing existing time keeping methods - but over time, as society becomes more complex, and especially by the industrial era, it just becomes too important to keep good time. Early on it's just planning out meetings, keeping track of historical events, but think about things like warfare, or further on tracking weather, doing business, etc.

Even in the middle ages and earlier, there were some fairly good time keeping devices, and I doubt that the industrial revolution would have been unaffected by a lack of timekeeping devices, especially small convenient ones like pocket watches.

So no, I don't think that a sufficiently advanced society could get very large and complex without adopting more rigorous time keeping standards. I'm sure that you could modify the taboo in some way to still make interesting limitations, while not removing a very important tool.

That is the crux of this, humanity will make foolish decisions often, where a good resource is rejected - think nuclear power in our day - but if a tool is unbelievably useful, like timekeeping, it is hard to keep a taboo on it. I think it would also be helpful to think a lot about the reason why such a taboo would come about.

A related example of your taboo comes to mind in the Stormlight Archive, where gambling with something like dice, or anything involving luck is considered sinful, because you're trying to predict the future. The taboo resides in fears and such about trying to predict randomness, trying to "control" it.

All this being said, I like the idea of a taboo centered around time, it probably just needs some refinement.


The Town Bell

So, you've got groups of people who need to meet up for some collective activity at a certain time. But you don't want any mechanical timekeeping device.

Here's a solution. You've got a guy with a big bell who decides what time of day it is. He doesn't have a clock and doesn't know the time precisely. But he can tell by the light, or just his gut sense, when it's about mid-morning or noon or mid-afternoon and so forth. So, perhaps six times a day he rings his bell at approximately the right time, and everyone hears it.

So, you can schedule a meeting: "meet in the west field after third bell." When people in town hear the third bell, they head to the west field, and arrive at roughly the same time for the meeting, perhaps within about fifteen minutes of the bell ringing, depending on the size of the town.

If you want, there's a way to be a bit more accurate about the time than the bell-ringer's "gut feeling," still without using any timekeeping device. The bell-ringer can be a guy who spends his day doing some repetitive job, and he rings the bell based on how much of his job he got done. Perhaps he's the baker. Perhaps he's plowing the fields or laying bricks. He knows roughly how many bricks he can lay in a day, so he divides that by six, and every time he lays that many bricks he rings the bell.

Another option would be to have the guy to be a priest who spends his entire day repeating the "prayer of the hours" at a measured pace. After each 573 recitations, he rings the bell. Or he could be a musician playing the lute, again keeping time and ringing the bell after so many songs.

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    $\begingroup$ "But he can tell by the light". That's a sundial... $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn the OP mentions telling time by the position of the sun, without a sundial, as something explicitly allowed. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ Then OP's question is internally inconsistent. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Mar 20, 2023 at 16:34

Not very precisely

It is, of course, impossible to look at the sun with the naked eye. Consequently, it's hard to tell when it's at the apex without instrumentation. Such as a known thing casting a shadow, generally with marks to indicate the past and future, because a shadow by itself won't tell you unless you know what it means.

On the other hand, for millennia civilizations rose and fell without any measure more precise than "hour" which might, actually, be longer than our contemporary hours. "Minutes" were invented in the last millennium, and came into common use after clocks. "Sun is approximately in its highest position" worked fine. (Only pedants note the difference between Solar Mean Time and Solar Apparent Time -- the average time the sun is highest in the sky, so that there are exactly twenty-four hours in a day, and the actual time, which can be as much as fifteen minutes out.) Even hourglasses and sundials could not measure time in the fields, so those working the fields would work by the sun which was good enough for their purposes.

There would also be measurements of time that are shorter. These are not instruments but songs or poems. They would possibly be regarded as spells or incantations, but what they really are is time measurement devices. Even in this century -- I know a woman who got a recipe from an older woman, who couldn't tell her how long to cook something on a frying pan, but would describe it as "Two Hail Marys" or "An Our Father and a Glory Be." They may not even realize they are time measurements, themselves.


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