Writing in Scientific American, metrologist Michael A. Lombardi explains the rather convoluted history of the 60-second minute, the 60-minute hour and the 24-hour day:
In today’s world, the most widely used numeral system is decimal (base 10), a system that probably originated because it made it easy for humans to count using their fingers. The civilizations that first divided the day into smaller parts, however, used different numeral systems, specifically duodecimal (base 12) and sexagesimal (base 60).
Thanks to documented evidence of the Egyptians’ use of sundials, most historians credit them with being the first civilization to divide the day into smaller parts. The first sundials were simply stakes placed in the ground that indicated time by the length and direction of the resulting shadow. As early as 1500 B.C., the Egyptians had developed a more advanced sundial. A T-shaped bar placed in the ground, this instrument was calibrated to divide the interval between sunrise and sunset into 12 parts. This division reflected Egypt’s use of the duodecimal system–the importance of the number 12 is typically attributed either to the fact that it equals the number of lunar cycles in a year or the number of finger joints on each hand (three in each of the four fingers, excluding the thumb), making it possible to count to 12 with the thumb. The next-generation sundial likely formed the first representation of what we now call the hour. Although the hours within a given day were approximately equal, their lengths varied during the year, with summer hours being much longer than winter hours.