A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age

A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age

by Greg Jenner


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Who invented beds? When did we start cleaning our teeth? How old are wine and beer? Which came first: the toilet seat or toilet paper? What was the first clock?

Every day, from the moment our alarm clock wakes us in the morning until our head hits our pillow at night, we all take part in rituals that are millennia old. Structured around one ordinary day, A Million Years in a Day reveals the astonishing origins and development of the daily practices we take for granted. In this gloriously entertaining romp through human history, Greg Jenner explores the gradual—and often unexpected—evolution of our daily routines.

This is not a story of wars, politics, or great events. Instead, Jenner has scoured Roman rubbish bins, Egyptian tombs, and Victorian sewers to bring us the most intriguing, surprising, and sometimes downright silly historical nuggets from our past.

Drawn from across the world, spanning a million years of humanity, this book is a smorgasbord of historical delights. It is a history of all those things you always wondered about—and many you have never considered. It is the story of your life, one million years in the making.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250089441
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 385,407
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Greg Jenner is a British public historian best known for his work as historical consultant and cowriter on the BBC’s multi-award-winning comedy series Horrible Histories. After studying at the University of York for a BA in history and archaeology and an MA in medieval studies, Jenner has worked in the TV industry on award-winning historical documentaries, dramas, comedies, and digital interactive projects for the past eleven years. He lives in the United Kingdom.

Read an Excerpt

A Million Years in a Day

A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age

By Greg Jenner

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Greg Jenner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08945-8


9.30 a.m.


The shrill klaxon of the alarm clock startles us from a deep snooze. We lift our head from the warm pillow, our moistened drool pooling in its folds, and prise apart our gunk-glued eyes to squint at the time, desperately hoping the clock has malfunctioned and there are at least two more hours of slumber available. Sadly, a corroborating glance at our mobile phone proves it's definitely time to get up.

Why does the clock's testimony matter so much? Why don't we just go back to sleep until we're fully rested? Well, because time is the architecture that governs the rhythms of our existence, and to ignore it is to invite chaos into our lives. Yet, though time is a stable entity that has reliably flowed for millions of years, its measurement has always been a tricky conundrum. Our strict division of standardised units – seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years – is not a universal law echoed through eternity, but an agreed-upon rubric adopted over the course of many centuries in a desperate attempt to avoid mind-scrambling confusion. In fact, to delve into the history of timekeeping is similar to watching a Belgian soap opera without the subtitles; at first it's baffling, but slowly it becomes strangely compelling.


Today is Saturday, and we know that because yesterday was Friday. But what do we mean when we talk about 'a day'? The English language is often dubbed the most bountiful of all, with an ever-swelling vocabulary, so it's faintly ridiculous that in English-speaking countries we deploy one word, 'day', to mean two different things: i) a 24-hour rotation of the Earth on its axis, and ii) the opposite of night. Despite it clearly being a communication trip hazard, we persist with this clumsy inelegance because we're proudly stubborn and, clearly, a little bit thick. Many other languages don't go in for such silliness. The Dutch, for example, sidestep confusion with two words instead, Dag (the daylight hours) and Etmaal (24 hours), while Bulgarians, Danes, Italians, Finns, Russians and Poles all do something similar. But the closest English-speakers get to Etmaal is with the ludicrously thrilling Nychthemeron ('night and day' in Greek), a name more befitting a Finnish heavy metal band. I've never actually heard it used in conversation, and even scientists ignore it, so it's become the under-nourished pet of etymologists who take it out of the box at special occasions to coo at its grandiose absurdity.

But Anglophones muddle through regardless, or occasionally move the goalposts by measuring time's duration in nights instead, as when we book hotel rooms, by cunningly deploying the Anglo-Saxon word 'fortnight' to indicate a block of 14 nights in a row. But even this doesn't entirely work, because the travel agent will inevitably ask: 'is that fourteen days, thirteen nights?' and we have to start counting it out on our fingers, like kids learning their times tables. But let's not judge too harshly, as it's partially an inherited failing; terminology for what constitutes a day has always been an awkward problem. In the third century, the Roman philosopher Censorinus argued that the 24-hour cycle should be named a 'civil day' while daylight hours should instead constitute a 'natural day'. While this was seemingly sensible, a gaggle of meddling seventh-century pedants sowed confusion by switching 'natural day' to instead mean the 24-hour rotation cycle, and introducing 'artificial day' to cover the daylight period.

But don't bother committing these definitions to memory in the hope of wowing your friends because modern astronomy has once again reverted to using a 'civil day' to describe a full rotation of the Earth. Consequently, 'natural day' has gone from meaning two separate things to now meaning nothing at all, while 'artificial day' is now what comes out of a light bulb. Got that? No, me neither ... but I'm afraid almost nothing in this chapter is simple, not even the definition of when a day begins and ends.


Opening our tired eyes wider, we see that the sunlight is streaming through a chink in the curtains, so it's definitely the morning; except, daylight is not a prerequisite for morning, is it? In both the modern West and East, a new day begins in the dark at 00:00, which is why British revellers at New Year's Eve parties drunkenly garble the first two lines of 'Auld Lang Syne' as the clock strikes midnight. But imagine the chaos if these intoxicated partygoers were forced to wait until dawn, getting drunker and drunker – it would sound less like a communal singsong and more like a herd of cattle being drowned at sea. Midnight, though, is a confusing word. Its syllables say 'this is the middle of the night', and yet it actually signals the start of the morning, leading us to wrongly label 1 a.m. TV broadcasts as 'late night telly', or boast about being 'up all night partying' when we get home at 4 a.m. This blurring of the lines, letting a day stay up past its official bedtime, shows that the way we live our life has a surprising thing in common with a civilisation that reached its peak around 3,500 years ago: ancient Egypt.

In their hyper-religious culture it was dawn that commenced a new day, not midnight. Consequently, the sunrise was heralded as a sacred event, the beginning of the daily commute undertaken by the sun god Ra in which he charged across the sky in his chariot and then had to fight an epic battle with the serpentine chaos god, Apophis. But, to validate this eternal routine, and make the sun rise, a dawn ceremony required the semi-divine pharaoh to perform cleansing rituals in the sacred temples of Karnak or Heliopolis. In practice, a proxy likely stood in for the king, who may often have been elsewhere in the empire, though it's very tempting to enjoy the mental image of a priest hastily having to mumble the half-remembered words while anxious servants desperately try to haul a grumpy Tutankhamun out of bed.

But beginning a day at dawn wasn't a universal ancient custom. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians – the occupants of majestic cities in what's now Iraq – shared much in common with their Bronze Age Egyptian neighbours, but their new day commenced at dusk, moments before they went to bed. This was later mimicked by the ancient Greeks, Celts, Germanic tribes and even medieval Italians, who knew this timekeeping system as Florentine Reckoning, which sounds like a great title for a murder mystery novel. Neither is this a relic from the long-dead past, as an Orthodox Jew will still observe the Shabbat between Friday sundown and Saturday dusk. So, how did the modern world end up with the midnight cut-off point? The answer is probably from the Romans who divided the day and night into two blocks of 12 hours.

Of course, the big question is who invented timekeeping in the first place? Did a Sumerian just wake up one morning, decide that it was 7 a.m., and everyone else just shrugged in nonplussed agreement? That seems unlikely. I think we might have to go further back to find an answer.


The Makapan Valley in the Limpopo province of South Africa is one of those gorgeous landscapes that looks like it's been digitally rendered by a Hollywood FX artist. It's a lush V-shaped valley – sprouting with green trees that turn russet in the autumn – and you wouldn't be entirely surprised to see pterodactyls swooping overhead. Jutting out of the forests are imposing limestone hills, in which a network of caves was slowly carved by ancient water erosion, and it's in these secluded shelters that archaeologists have discovered some extraordinary prehistoric remains, including the bones of one of our earliest ancestors – Homo Australopithecus.

Here, three million years ago, one of these diminutive upright creatures must have noticed the lengthening shadows in the evening gloom and waddled off to the safety of the caves. Though the stone walls may have offered temporary shelter, they couldn't prevent the inevitable, and the sheltering hominin breathed its last breath within the limestone cavern, only to be rediscovered by palaeontologists in the twentieth century. Australopithecus possessed virtually none of our intellectual powers, and would have been really inept at crosswords, yet even this primitive creature might have noticed the natural world's cyclical rhythms: the waxing and waning of the moon, the lapping of the tides, and the parade of quarterly seasons. The Earth ceaselessly revolves on its axis, flooding our lives with light and darkness like an incessant heartbeat, and Australopithecus could have relied upon the sun's arced journey through the sky each day, knowing it would return after dark. In short, he or she probably had a basic comprehension of time.

This, however, is just guesswork. Where's the actual evidence for Stone Age timekeeping? If we fast-forward to 30,000 years ago – a time when modern humans shared the planet with Neanderthals – then we encounter an enticingly ambiguous object found at Le Placard in the Dordogne region of France. It's an eagle bone, and scratched across its surface are a series of notches, carved horizontally at different times, which appear to chart the waxing of the moon through 14 days, from new to full. It's sorely tempting, therefore, to refer to this bone as the world's oldest known calendar.

Though it's not impossible that this was made by a Neanderthal, many archaeologists suspect that this rival clan of Homo was ill-matched against our superior cognitive adaptability – they were the Judge Dredd to our Sherlock Holmes: stronger, more robust, better at punching a bear right in its stupid, ursine face ... but more likely to scream in frustration if you'd asked them to adjust the clock on a microwave. Instead, it was probably a human like us – an inventive Homo sapiens brimming with natural curiosity – who conceivably peered at the moon in wonder and decided to chart its phases on a bit of a bone salvaged from last night's dinner, taxing its refined brain in the pursuit of elemental understanding about how the cosmos functioned. But, then again, maybe it was just someone doodling while having a poo.

After all, just because we are using our clock to measure time in a uniform way doesn't mean our ancestors did. Even just a couple of centuries ago, there was a major temporal shift that dramatically chucked out the 24-hour clock we hold so dear ...


The year was 1793 and France was in the grip of a violent revolution. King Louis XVI was already minus his head, having fallen victim to the guillotine that would soon stain the Parisian cobbles with a scarlet treacle of noble and peasant blood, and European politicians were gawping in horror at the tumult which might infect their own populace at any moment. The world was aflame with big ideas and French society was being redrawn on a blank sheet of paper by a cadre of radical intellectuals fired up by Enlightenment philosophy. Nothing would escape their gaze, and even time itself was about to get a top-down redesign ...

For over 4,000 years the duodecimal mathematics of the Babylonians had stubbornly prevailed, but why had it been based on the number 12 and not 10? Well, 10 is only divisible by integers of 2 and 5, whereas 12 is divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6, making it much more versatile in mathematical calculations. What's more, the use of a lunisolar calendar, based on observations of both the sun and the moon, relied on there being 12 lunar phases per year (with a 13th 'leap' month chucked in every two or three years), so 12 was the numerical cornerstone of the universe. Logically, therefore, time should operate in a duodecimal rubric, with 60 seconds in a minute and 24 hours in a day.

But that was ancient thought and this was 1793! The French Revolution wasn't just about bewigged aristos getting their comeuppance from a hungry mob, its leaders also sought to break with the traditions of the corrupted past, in favour of scientific rationalism. For more than two centuries, European philosophers had been muttering among themselves about a possible metric system, but now a window in which to test it had arrived. So, on 5 October, a proposal lodged a year earlier by Jean-Charles de Borda was voted into law by the new National Assembly. The 24-hour day was suddenly chopped up into ten distinct hours, with each hour comprising 100 minutes, and each minute lasting 100 seconds.

As you might have guessed, the rest of the calendar was also carefully redrafted, so weeks became ten-day décades – thereby unintentionally mirroring the ancient Egyptian week – and the year shrank to ten newly christened months with splendidly prosaic names like Ventôse (the windy month), which referred to blustery February rather than the Christmas period when we often find ourselves embarrassingly gaseous from overindulgence. This decimalised timekeeping was proudly pronounced as evidence of French innovation, but in fact the ancient Chinese had already dabbled with it for centuries until, somewhat ironically, they'd been convinced to ditch it by European merchants. Clearly, the French authorities had not received the memo. Soon, they would regret their ignorance.

Yes, metric time was woefully unpopular and, despite attempts at appeasement by building hybrid clocks showing both 24 hours and ten hours on their faces, this endeavour was widely considered a literal waste of time. Mass guillotining the French could just about stomach, but ten-hour clocks? Madness! Embarrassingly for all involved, the much-vaunted decimal revolution endured barely 18 months (or was it 14 decimal months ...?) before being hastily replaced by good old duodecimal time.

'But hang on a second,' I hear you exclaim in unison, 'what was that bit about the Egyptians having a ten-day week? That's not duodecimal!' Yeah, about that ... Now's probably a good moment to get to grips with the 'how' of horological history. You might need to concentrate for this bit, so make yourself comfy. It's about to get fairly technical.


If we were to look at a calendar on our wall, we would see that our system allots seven days to each week, imitating that of the Babylonians, but Egyptians fused that custom with their own innovations to produce a separate timekeeping system. Unlike the Mesopotamians, they chose to cram their annual calendar with 36 weeks of ten days, leaving a spare five bonus days to be arbitrarily tacked on at the end. What's more, having ten-day weeks also meant they preferred to recognise only three seasons of four months, instead of our four seasons of three months. This was mostly due to the River Nile's capricious mood-swings that brought annual flooding during a large part of the year, and resulted in a calendar carved up into agricultural cycles of flooding, crop-sowing and harvesting, rather than our spring, summer, autumn and winter.

But how was a day parcelled up? Well, an Egyptian 24-hour Nychthemeron (sorry, it's just such fun to type ...) was not defined like our two daily halves of 12 hours, but as four phases: one hour of half-light, followed by ten hours of daylight, chased by another hour of half-light, and then 12 hours of darkness. The big questions, then, are whether Egyptians could measure hours and, if so, how? When it came to daylight hours, sundials were the preferred technology, and we'll get to those shortly, but it's the night hours that were much harder to track, which is what makes the Egyptian solution so ingenious.


Have you ever gazed at the stars just before the dawn? As romantic 18-year-olds, my friends and I thought we'd do it on the first morning of the new Millennium. We'd quite literally partied like it was 1999 and then we drunkenly clambered up a hill to watch the sun rise on this glorious new epoch. Sadly for us, the sky was cloudy and the glorious sunrise was ruined by the orange glow of Sevenoaks' streetlights, so we trudged back to the house and ate doughnuts instead. So much for romance ... But if we'd chosen a less light-polluted promontory, and a country with better weather, we might have glimpsed something known to astronomers as heliacal rising.

Just before the dawn, certain stars called Decans briefly peek over the eastern horizon. These groups of 36 constellations drift westerly each day by a single degree, appearing each morning slightly further across, until they pass out of view for a whole year. A new star peeps, like a curious meerkat, over the eastern horizon every ten days (hence the name, Dekanoi means 'tenths' in Greek), and this possibly influenced the Egyptians to choose a ten-day week. But what does this have to do with telling the time? Well, scribbled on sarcophagi, and inscribed on tomb walls, ancient Egyptian scholars left behind their star charts and calendars which have allowed modern archaeo-astronomers to decipher their cunning system for turning heliacal rising into a nocturnal clock. The Diagonal Star Table, at first glance – and several increasingly confused glances after that – resembled what might happen if an unfortunate software glitch converted a bus timetable into hieroglyphs. Running horizontally along the top of the chart were the 36 weeks of the year, each of which contains ten days, and below each of these 36 columns were symbols representing when each Decan was visible in which week of the year. In the simplest terms possible, if you knew what the exact date was, the Diagonal Star Table allowed you to match the position of a specific Decan star in the sky to the data in the chart, thereby revealing the approximate hour.


Excerpted from A Million Years in a Day by Greg Jenner. Copyright © 2015 Greg Jenner. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


9.30 a.m. Rise and Shine

9.45 a.m. Answering the Call of Nature

10 a.m. A Spot of Breakfast

10.45 a.m. Jumping in the Shower

11.15 a.m. Walking the Dog

12 p.m. Keeping in Touch

6 p.m. Picking an Outfit

7 p.m. A Champagne Aperitif

7.45 p.m. Dinner

9.30 p.m. Drinks

11.45 p.m. Brushing our Teeth

11.53 p.m. Getting into Bed

11.59 p.m. Setting the Alarm Clock


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A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Like a week at Disneyland. So much to see and read. Much to read...much to learn...fun book. Trivia, science, mind stretching learning without the stuffy sleep producing stuff. Not stuffy, not boring...head scratching at times with wonder. I just loved this book. I read it over again. It's like watching Airplane, the movie, you have to watch it a dozen times to catch all the stuff. Excellent.