This is the 2nd and concluding post based on my reading of David Landes’ book, Revolution in Time. The first post is Revolution in Time (I). I read the book trying to understand how our adoption of mechanical clocks has altered our human understanding of time. No longer do we look to natural signs (sun, moon) to determine time, now our lives (including our biological clocks) are entangled with the mechanical clocks we have manufactured.
Landes points out that before the clock was invented in the agricultural world no one really needed to know seconds or minutes. They worked sunrise to sunset. No one worried about productivity. Craftsman did not earn wages by the hour but instead by the product. In Western Europe, as already mentioned, the clock was first important for the Church in telling people when to show up at church – when the bells rang. People weren’t looking at their watches to decide when to go to church, they only went to church when the tower bell rings, calling the community to prayer. This became also true for industry – in the industrial revolution the business owners wanted to have ways to tell workers when to show up and when to go home – that was as accurate a timing as was needed. No one was paid by the hour so work whistles served the same purpose as the church bells.
The real need for a better clock occurred with the discovery of the Americas. In the 18th Century, Sailors knew how to calculate latitude (distances north and south) by measuring the stars against the horizon. But no one knew how to calculate longitude (distances east and west). This became critical as Transatlantic crossings become more frequent. Ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean had no way of knowing how close they were to shore. Many captains and crews dropped anchor at night because they feared running into land in the dark. This made Transatlantic crossing even slower as they only sailed in the daylight. Clocks that used pendulums or gears existed, but couldn’t function on a ship roiling on the waves. Sailors knew how to measure speed in knots (how fast a ship passed by a number of knots on a rope put out at sea), but without a measurement of time they could not calculate distance. The countries of Europe offered small fortunes to someone who could invent a clock that worked on a ship on the ocean. The British Parliament offered a huge 20,000 pound reward to anyone who could invent a clock that could work on a ship. Most of the great scientists and inventors of Europe worked on this with no success. Then an unknown, self-taught clock making apprentice, John Harrison, developed a device that could work on a ship. Finally, a machine with gears that could keep time accurate enough to work on a ship (not affected by the waves) which meant longitudinal distance could finally be calculated. Harrison’s first working model was a 3 foot cube. Twenty-five years later he made one that was a 5 inch cube and still worked good enough.
The next technological invention that required better clocks was the train. People needed to know when to show up at the station to catch or meet a train. This was more crucial in America than Europe because we have a bigger land mass. But it caused more improvements in the clock – more accuracy, smaller timepieces. This miniaturization led to the development of personal watches that could be easily carried in a pocket.
Where people had once depended on the cry of the night watch, the bell of the church, or the turret clock in the town square, now they had the time at home or on their person and could order their life and work in a manner once reserved to regulated communities. In this way, privatization (personalization) of time was a major stimulus to the individualism that was an ever more salient aspect of Western civilization. (p 89)
Clocks and watches thus made possible the privatization of time. Each person could carry their own time piece and know what time it was wherever they were. Thus each could be personally responsible for doing what needed to be done (go to work, go to church, go home). People with watches were becoming more individualized and less reliant on society to know the time. Landes points out “. . . it is not ‘natural’ to want to know the precise time – that is, time as expressed in hours, minutes and subminutes” (p 25). Nothing in nature calculates time so accurately and minutely. The invention of the clock and watch mechanize time and thus change how we think about it and what use we make of that information. Not only were the watches being miniaturized, but our attention to smaller units of time was increasing. Seconds became important as did fractions of a second. Just think about the end of a basketball game and how much time is used determining how much time is left in the game!
The clock had to be invented by humans, which as it turns out required a great amount of engineering and technology to make it happen. There was nothing in nature which modeled a clock or made us so aware of tiny units of time.
“The clock is a machine, a work of artifice, a man-made device with no model in nature – the kind of invention that needed planning, thinking, trying, and then more of each. No one could have stumbled on it or dreamed it up. But someone, or rather some people. Wanted very much to track the time – not merely to know it, but to use it” (p 16).
The invention of timepieces made timekeeping possible. Only human ingenuity and engineering made the clock possible. Nothing in nature approximated the exact detailed timekeeping which clocks and watches made possible.
“What did not happen was that man wanted to measure time and so devised new ways of doing it. What did happen is that in the course of following an old trend, not quite yet extinct, he developed quite sophisticated techniques, important for their technological brilliance, that gave him for the first time the possibility of doing something he had not wanted before it was readily available. This product, timekeeping, caught on… ” (p 55)
Seconds and minutes do not really exist. The clock and watch became mechanical ways to measure these things and to mark them so we could experience them. Other needs – especially dealing with great distances was the real impetus for the development of the modern clock. Clocks and watches made us ever more aware of the passing (tick tick tick) of minute units of time. The clock and watch were training our brains to pay attention to something the ancients had not concern about.
“A turning hand, specifically a minute hand (the hour hand turns so slowly as to seem still), is a measure of time used, time spent, time wasted, time lost. As such it was prod and key to the personal achievement and productivity” (p 89). It is only “in the seventeenth century (one hundred years of progress), we begin to see half-hour and then quarter-hour divisions on watch dials” (114). The progress was slow, but this slowness allowed the watch and clock to become indispensable to human lives. And the clock and watch changed our relationship to time, for now we think about time in mechanical rather than natural terms. “… we now must intercalate leap seconds (as we continue to insert leap days) in order to make the calendar conform to the human experience of time and tide” (p 3). The ancients did their best to conform “a year” to a lunar calendar of months each with an equal number of days. But science says a year is how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun: 365.256 days (365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes). Only mechanical clocks can now keep time so precisely that we can determine an actual year. Since this number is not a nice even number, we totally rely on instruments to track time, and we adjust our calendar year by leap seconds so that our sense of time will be scientifically accurate.
Our modern experience of time is so intertwined with the mechanics of clocks and watches that we have lost a natural sense of time. Not only are we constantly looking at our watches, clocks and now cell phones to determine the time or “how long?”, but the mechanical time piece is now in our heads as well. The keeping of time has changed us humans and how we think and experience the world. The human invention of watches and clocks has made a lasting impression on our brains and our experience of life.