A Few Notes On The History of Clocks

14th Century medieval illuminated manuscript showing the astronomical clock of St. Albans Abbey and the abbot, Richard of Wallingford, responsible for the clock’s creation.

I accidentally started reading about the history of clocks. First, I stumbled upon a sweet book by Swedish historian Peter Englund. Unfortunately, majority of his books are written in Swedish and aren’t translated into English (except his book The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War).

Some of Englund’s essays deal with so called “small histories”, or histories that deal with some specific aspects of human experiences. I found this delightful because as Karl Popper said, “There is no history of mankind, there are only many histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.” And Englund offers these histories: one of his essays deals with the history of clocks.

While reading Englund’s essays, I also started reading a book by Lewis Mumford, a historian, sociologist and a philosopher of technology, called Technics and Civilization. In the first chapter Mumford writes about the “cultural preparation” for the advancement of technology. There he tackles the history of clocks, starting from the Middle ages.

While reading both books I found some random things about clocks. It struck me how much we have shaped and changed our lives based on the invention that was solving problems of some extreme users, such as monks and soldiers.

But let’s go into some details.

Clocks were born in monasteries in the Middle ages

According to Englund (who cites David Landis), Christian authorities advised that praying should happen on the third, sixth and ninth hour of the day. So in order to track when was the right time for praying, the need for the precise measurement of time was born.

Here is how Mumford depicts the monastery life that brought about the clock:

Within the walls of the monastery was sanctuary: under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay. Opposed to the erratic fluctuations and pulsation ‘ of the worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule. Benedict added a seventh period to the devotions of the day, and in the seventh century, by a bull of Pope Sabinianus, it was decreed that the bells of the monastery be rung seven times in the twenty-four hours. These punctuation mark, in the day were known as the canonical hours, and some means of keeping count of them and ensuring their regular repetition became necessary.

Based on some facts, Mumford tries to connect the lifestyle inside the monastery with the development of capitalism.

If the mechanical clock did not appear until the cities of the thirteenth century demanded an orderly routine, the habit of order itself and the earnest regulation of time-sequences had become almost second nature in the monastery. Coulton agrees with Sombart in looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, and perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism: their rule certainly took the course off work and their vigorous engineering enterprises may even have robbed warfare of some of its glamor. So one is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries – at one time there were 40.000 under the Benedictine rule – helped to give the human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.

Mumford explains the history of clocks within his effort to track the cultural conditions which brought about the dominant role of technics in the human society. So he gives interesting interpretations about what the introducing of the clock meant for human life.

The clock, moreover, is a piece of power-machinery whose “product” is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief . in common human experience: throughout dIe year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time – what Bergson calls duration – is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction-through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death – and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.

Lewis Mumford – Technics and Civilization

Popularization of clocks: “Time is money”

Early in the sixteenth century a young Nuremberg mechanic, Peter Henlein, is supposed to have created “many-wheeled watches out of small bits of iron” and by the end of the century the small domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. As with the motor car and the airplane, the richer classes first took over the new mechanism and popularized it: partly because they alone could afford it, partly because the new bourgeoisie were the first to discover that, as Franklater put it, “time is money.” To become “as regular as clockwork” was the bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long definite a symbol of success. The increasing tempo of civilization led to a demand for greater power: and in turn the power quickened the tempo.

Lewis Mumford – Technics and Civilization

The effects of clock: disrupting natural with the mechanical clock

But the effect of the mechanical clock is more pervasive and strict: it presides over the day from the hour of rising to the hour of rest. When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence. Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments.

Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences, it became easier for the men of the Renascence to indulge the fantasy of reviving the classic past or of reliving the splendors of antique Roman civilization: the cult of history, appearing first in daily ritual, finally abstracted itself as a special discipline. In the seventeenth century journalism and periodic literature made their appearance: even in dress, following the lead of Venice as fashion-center, people altered styles every year rather than every generation.

Lewis Mumford – Technics and Civilization

The origin of hand watches

A final interesting fact comes from Englund. And it is about the origin of the hand watch.

Namely, until the First World War, the main version of the watch was the one that people were wearing in their pockets. However, the new problem emerged during the War on the battlefield.

There was a new type of strategy on the battlefield: the infantry was supposed to march for 25 meters within the one minute. In front of them, artillery was supposed to follow the same dynamics. So the problem was practical: how are you supposed to follow the time with the watch inside your pocket while you guns with you in the arms?

That brought the first hand watch, made in 1914 by some French manufacturer. Essentially, the hand watch was developed as a military equipment. And after the WWI, the demand for pocket watches went down, and it was replaced with the new demand for hand watches.

In the end of the essay, Englund offers few super lessons we could learn from this.

Forms of war seamlessly find their way into our discourse and our way of life.

No one is interested with the natural time anymore, because the abstract time of the watch doesn’t leave us alone. The time exists like a constant warning, eternal loud objection while we are walking with sign of the First World War on our hand.

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