Friday, September 5, 2014

Where the 40-Hour Week Came From

A tie-in with the previous post:
“Seven days,” wrote Witold Rybczynski in the August 1991 issue of The Atlantic, “is not natural because no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.” The year marks one revolution of the Earth around the sun.  Months, supposedly, mark the time between full moons.  The seven-day week, however, is completely man-made.

If it’s man-made, can’t man unmake it? For all the talk of how freeing it’d be to shave a day or two off the five-day workweek, little attention has been paid to where the weekly calendar came from. Understanding the sometimes arbitrary origins of the modern workweek might inform the movement to shorten it.

The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week.  (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born.

The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries:

    In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.

Some 19th-century Britons used the week's seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of “Saint Monday,” in which workers would skip work to recover from Sunday's gallivanting, emerged. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them a half-day on Saturday in exchange for guaranteed attendance at work on Monday.
Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From (The Atlantic) Anyone who had been in rush-hour traffic knows the idiocy of maintaining this system. Yet another example of how our dysfunctional social systems lead to waste and inefficiency of precious irreplaceable resources. See also How the Industrial Revolution Ended Naps (Vice)
The Industrial Revolution was a pivotal moment in the history of labor, marking the turning point when humanity began to shift from a farming and handicrafts based economy, to one of mass manufacturing and production. And while the changes in our society were obviously monumental (to put it mildly), heralding the way for stuff like conveyor belts and factory life, it’s also worth reflecting on how those sudden changes profoundly affected the way humans sleep.

Prior to the 18th century much of humanity used to have two distinct resting periods where farmers and workers caught up on some sleep, versus today's solid eight hours of sleep a night in the United States. The two sleeps of the past are called 'segmented sleeping' in today’s terms, and were often referred to in Europe as "first sleep" and "second sleep"[...]

Before the 18th century, night was a pretty scary time for most people, even the rich, who could only afford to buy light-producing objects such as candles. But as light technology became more prevalent, and evening activities more common—up until the 17th century, most people out at night were either drunk or looking for prostitutes, according to the paper—we began to change our sleeping patterns to suit our new access to later hours.

It didn't happen overnight, either. Just as the Industrial Revolution actually took several centuries to completely unfold, it was really only until the 1920s when references to first and second sleep dried up. And nowadays, the conventional wisdom is that eight hours of sleep is what’s healthy, with segmented sleep rarely mentioned in the US except in reference to the Spanish siesta.

The thing is, our bodies aren't built for sleeping in eight hour blocks. For example, Dr. Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist, experimented by removing artificial light from the equation of test subjects—that meant no smart phones, laptops, or even light bulbs for 14 hours a day. At first there wasn’t any change, but after several weeks of experimentation the Wehr's subjects ended up reverting to the first and second sleep pattern that’s been around at least since Homer.
Seven day weeks? Eight solid hours of sleep? Why are we living in these profoundly unnatural ways? Is there any really practical reason for it? Talk about social inertia!


  1. Part I

    The seven-day week comes from deep understandings of ancient astronomy, which were introduced in ancient times into everyday life. The understandings were, in those times, not esoteric, but available to any informed person. But what an informed person knew in Babylonian times is not what an informed person knows in our times. The Babylonian knew many things we have forgotten.

    Some of the things they knew that we have forgotten are basic. Most modern people have the vague notion that a month (a lunation) is 28 days. It is not. As a matter of course, an ancient Babylonian knew that (on average) a round of the moon was about 29 and 1/2 days. If a day and a half error does not seem like much, take a moment to notice that in a year a modern person would be off by an entire week, while the Babylonian would have been able to calculate the Moon's phase for several years, using arithmetic no more complicated than addition and subtraction.

    That is the first level.

    The second level is this: The Babylonians knew that 29 and 1/2 days is slightly imprecise, and that after 49 months the moon would be a day and a half later than estimated. In modern terms, we would say what the Babylonians knew in a different way--that a month is about 29.5306 days.

    But we have not yet gotten to the week. That is more subtle--the third level:

    As it happens, the Moon is never average. As it is goes through the month--from new to first quarter to full to third quarter and back to new--it is always shifting from being slightly early to being slightly late and back again in an everchanging pattern. The discrepancy from average can be more than fifteen hours. The Babylonians were measuring lunar motion with a precision of less than an hour, so these discrepancies were blatant. Fortunately, though everchanging, the pattern was repetitive: After fourteen months the pattern repeats. It is this fourteen-month great cycle of departure from average that the week signifies.

    It works like this: Fourteen months times 29 1/2 days per month gives 413 days for the great cycle. Let a cycle of 59 day numbers--fifty-nine days is two months--run endlessly. Let a cycle of seven day-names--the days of the week--run concurrently and also endlessly. Now each day of the 413-day great cycle is uniquely identified by a day name and number. The day number tells you the phase of the Moon. The day of the week allows you to determine where you are in the pattern of earliness and lateness.

    There is more to the Moon's behavior, but these three levels are enough to bring forward the meaning of the week.

  2. Part II

    The planets did not give rise to the week. It is the other way around: The week created the need for seven planets.

    Consider: Uranus is a naked-eye object, but is not very bright, and being unneeded, could be easily overlooked. Imagine if it were brighter: Perhaps the whole schema of planets would have been scrapped for something else. Or perhaps Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn would have been replaced by Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, with the Sun taking a non-planetary status. In any case, what is needed is a family of seven things.

    The week goes back well before the Babylonians. Supporting--though not conclusive--evidence takes it back at least to Sumerian times. There are hints that it goes back fully two thousand years earlier even than that.

    On the other hand, the knowledge I have just described was still extant and widespread in the West in the Middle Ages. Consider the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer from 13th century Scotland:

    "Her shirt was of the grass-green silk/ Her mantle of the velvet fine/ At ikka tett her horse's mane hung fifty siller bells and nine.

    Thus the audience is told, before she announces herself in the next stanza of the ballad, who the Elf Queen is and that she belongs to the Moon. The meaning of silver is obvious, even in modern times, and the 59 repeats the theme--since the audience knows that two months is 59 days! Thomas spends seven years in Elfland, which implies a 365-day year with each year named by a day of the week. (This is another topic which I skip for now.) So the days of the week are there too.

    The days of the week continued into modern times only because of Christianity, which carried it over from the Jewish sabbath, which came from the Babylonians. Should we, as moderns, destroy this last popularly-known fragment of ancient knowledge? Even if modernity itself were not poised to crash and burn on resource and environmental limits--and disappear forever!--I would argue for conservation.

    For the Week


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