A pendulum-governed escapement of a clock, ticking every second
General information
Unit systemSI base unit
Unit ofTime

The second (symbol: s) is the base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI), commonly understood and historically defined as ​186400 of a day – this factor derived from the division of the day first into 24 hours, then to 60 minutes and finally to 60 seconds each. Analog clocks and watches often have sixty tick marks on their faces, representing seconds, and a "second hand" to mark the passage of time in seconds. Digital clocks and watches often have a two-digit seconds counter. The second is also part of several other units of measurement like meters per second for velocity, meters per second per second for acceleration, and per second for frequency.

Although the historical definition of the unit was based on this division of the Earth's rotation cycle, the formal definition in the International System of Units (SI) is a much steadier timekeeper: it is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency ∆νCs, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom, to be 9192631770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1.[1][2]Because the Earth's rotation varies and is also slowing ever so slightly, a leap second is periodically added to clock time[nb 1] to keep clocks in sync with Earth's rotation.

Multiples of seconds are usually counted in hours and minutes. Fractions of a second are usually counted in tenths or hundredths. In scientific work, small fractions of a second are counted in milliseconds (thousandths), microseconds (millionths), nanoseconds (billionths), and sometimes smaller units of a second. An everyday experience with small fractions of a second is a 1-gigahertz microprocessor which has a cycle time of 1 nanosecond. Camera shutter speeds are often expressed in fractions of a second, such as ​130 second or ​11000 second.

Sexagesimal divisions of the day from a calendar based on astronomical observation have existed since the third millennium BC, though they were not seconds as we know them today. Small divisions of time could not be measured back then, so such divisions were mathematically derived. The first timekeepers that could count seconds accurately were pendulum clocks invented in the 17th century. Starting in the 1950s, atomic clocks became better timekeepers than earth's rotation, and they continue to set the standard today.

Clocks and solar time

A mechanical clock, one which does not depend on measuring the relative rotational position of the earth, keeps uniform time called mean time, within whatever accuracy is intrinsic to it. That means that every second, minute and every other division of time counted by the clock will be the same duration as any other identical division of time. But a sundial which measures the relative position of the sun in the sky called apparent time, does not keep uniform time. The time kept by a sundial varies by time of year, meaning that seconds, minutes and every other division of time is a different duration at different times of the year. The time of day measured with mean time versus apparent time may differ by as much as 15 minutes, but a single day will differ from the next by only a small amount; 15 minutes is a cumulative difference over a part of the year. The effect is due chiefly to the obliqueness of earth's axis with respect to its orbit around the sun.

The difference between apparent solar time and mean time was recognized by astronomers since antiquity, but prior to the invention of accurate mechanical clocks in the mid-17th century, sundials were the only reliable timepieces, and apparent solar time was the generally accepted standard.