A History of Mechanical Clocks‏, by Fjordman

When Fjordman ofered me one of his essays for posting at La Yijad en Eurabia, I replied him he should not tell me this twice if he did not really mean it. Sure; I had no reason to doubt that he meant it indeed, but I wanted to suggest that a blog dedicated mainly to inform Spanish readers on the first skirmishes of the Third Jihad that we are sufferign and that only marginally has some English posts (see De rebus Hispaniae) does not really deserve it.

Under these circumstances it is a privilege and an honor –and I say it sincerely and not rethorically- to publish in my blog his essay A History of Mechanical Clocks‏, which deals with a topic on which we had had an exchange. I have to say that I prefer reading his essays – and in general long and valuable texts- on paper instead of on-line. I enjoy them much more that way. But, as I have to dossify my readings, I read them ussualy one week after publiching, and it is then too late to coment on-line.

I that case, after our exchange I wrote a post that proposses that medeivals invented modern time management: De cómo los cristianos medievales inventaron la gestión moderna del tiempo: El Libro de la Horas u Oficio Divino. It is in Spanish, but you will find some links to English texts. You can also find its main thesis –together with many other ones- in Fjordman’s essay: the need to follow a dayly timetable in the monasteries made necessary measuring time.

For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here. If, like me, you prefer reading on paper, you are invited to order a copy of Defeating Eurabia, Fjordman’s first book.

Enjoy the reading.

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The significance of the mechanical clock as an invention is easy to underestimate, but accurate timekeeping was of tremendous importance during the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Peoples in different corners of the Earth have used various devices or techniques to keep track of time. One of the earliest types of timekeepers was the shadow clock, or gnomon, and the sundial. Water clocks and sundials were employed in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The ancient Greeks added further refinements to Egyptian devices.

Ctesibius or Ktesibios of Alexandria, Egypt, a Greek inventor in the early third century BC, was famous for creating devices involving pneumatics, or compressed air. He is credited with the invention of a force pump, a catapult and a hydraulic organ, and made substantial improvements to the Egyptian clepsydra, or water clock, adding adornments such as ringing bells. The most sophisticated of his water clocks told the hours with a succession of moving puppets or whistling birds, the ancestor of the cuckoo clock. Clepsydras or clepsydrae were used for different purposes by the Greeks, in courts and in regulating the speeches of orators. All of Ctesibius’ texts are now lost, but his work was continued by others, notably by Philo of Byzantium, who was slightly younger than Ctesibius, and in the Roman period by Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria. Sophisticated water clocks were certainly used during Roman times.

The Antikythera Mechanism from about 100 BC is the most sophisticated mechanical device known from the ancient world. It was designed to calculate astronomical positions and to track dates of the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games were of great religious significance to the Greeks and were held every four years, but their importance declined after the Romans gained power and they were banned during the Christian period due to their connections to paganism. They were revived in the late nineteenth century as the Modern Olympic Games. While the Antikythera Mechanism is surprisingly complex, we have no evidence indicating that the Greeks or anybody else before the thirteenth century AD made mechanical clocks.

The impact of better timekeeping devices on the world of sports was enormous. When Oxford and Cambridge in England met in March 1864 in the world’s first head-to-head athletics competition, the races were timed in quarter-seconds. At Stockholm in 1912, the Olympic Games experimented with photographic-electric timers clocking tenths of seconds; in 1924 in Paris they introduced instruments that could resolve hundredths. Yet there was stubborn resistance to the new ways. Not until 1960 at Rome were hand-held times finally abandoned and electric results accepted as official. Nevertheless, the demands for time accuracy in the sciences, especially in physics and astronomy, dwarf those of sports.

We know that some of the accumulated horological skills of the ancient Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean survived in the region after the Islamic conquests. One famous example is the fine brass water clock which struck the hours, donated by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad to Charlemagne’s coronation in the year 800. The engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) constructed several water clocks and astronomical clocks. Regarding astronomical instruments, the idea behind them was that the motions of the planets were governed by a complex system of circles, as elaborated in the work of Greek astronomers such as Ptolemy. These circles could be envisioned as great wheels, one revolving in another. Nonetheless, despite having access to much of the same body of knowledge as did Christian Europeans, Muslims didn’t develop fully mechanical clocks:

According to scholar Arnold Pacey in Technology in World Civilization, “In the Islamic world, there was a small but significant revival of interest in the philosophical aspects of clocks, as well as in drawing and mathematics, when an observatory was set up at Istanbul between 1575 and 1577. Not only was it equipped with astronomical instruments, but it was organized for geographical work as well, with a globe and maps. These last probably included work by Piri Reis, a Turkish naval officer famous for maps of Mediterranean ports and of the Atlantic, drawn before 1521. The man responsible for the observatory, Taqi-al-Din, was aware of earlier Islamic writers on mechanics and produced his own book on machines, influenced by the thirteenth-century work of al-Jazari. In 1565, Taqi also wrote about clock mechanisms, discussing all the latest western types. He built a clock for the observatory, but noted the low price of clocks imported from Holland and Germany….The Istanbul observatory did not last long, but was closed as a result of pressure from much the same conservative elements as resisted the introduction of printing. As a result, the cartographic works of Piri Reis and the technical books of Taqi-al-Din had few successors.”

A similar “fine technology” of astronomical instruments developed in China, where, as in the Middle East, clocks were driven by hydraulic devices. The most accurate clock was built by the government official Su Song, or Su Sung, at Kaifeng in the 1080s. Pacey again:

“It was driven by a water-wheel, 3.4 meters in diameter, with 36 buckets mounted on its circumference. The wheel revolved slowly – in fact at precisely 100 revolutions each day – under the control of a very exact escapement mechanism. There is disagreement among historians as to whether Islamic clockmakers knew anything about this Chinese device or vice versa. The one certain connection is that Su Song’s work originated with concern about the calendar, and the Chinese knew about the calendar used in Iran. However, in contrast to the water-wheel drive in Su Song’s clock, most Islamic clocks were driven by the weight of a large float – perhaps a block of wood – which would typically be contained in a tank from which water slowly drained at a controlled rate. As the float descended with the falling water level, its weight operated the clock mechanism. One idea behind all these inventions was the dream that if one could make a clock or other instrument that exactly reproduced the motions of the sun and the planets, one would capture something of their essence. At a time when many people believed in astrological forces emanating from the planets, this was a powerful concept.”

Much of the subsequent information is taken from the book Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, Revised and Enlarged Edition by David S. Landes. The greatest weakness of this otherwise excellent book is that apart from a chapter about China it says little about other horological traditions before thirteenth century Europe. John North’s God’s Clockmaker about the clock built by the Englishman Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336) contains more information about clockmaking traditions before late medieval Europe.

The Chinese writer, mathematician and astronomer Zhang Heng (AD 78-139), sometimes spelled Chang Heng, was born in the Eastern Han Dynasty. He constructed an equatorial armillary sphere representing the celestial sphere, and with this he was able to make accurate star maps. He also created the first known seismograph. This was of practical significance, but also because earthquakes could be seen as signs of Heaven’s displeasure with the Emperor’s rule. Eight dragons were mounted around a base consisting of eight toads with open mouths; a tremor would shift a pendulum within the base, activating lever devices that caused a bronze ball to drop from the dragon’s mouth into a toad’s mouth with a resonant clang.

The English geologist and engineer John Milne (1850-1913) invented the first modern seismograph while serving as a foreign advisor in earthquake-ridden Japan in the 1880s. He promoted a network of seismological stations around the world. The German scholar Alfred Lothar Wegener (1880-1930) in 1915 published Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans), which contained the first full statement of the hypothesis of continental drift and the idea that all continents had once been part of a single, giant continent which Wegener named “Pangaea.” The concept of continental drift initially met powerful resistance, but was eventually expanded by later scholars into the theory of plate tectonics, which has become a very successful model for explaining why earthquakes happen.

The Chinese astronomer, mathematician and Buddhist monk Yi Xing (AD 683-727) made one of the first known clockwork escapement mechanisms. David S. Landes calls Su Sung’s eleventh-century clock “a magnificent dead end.” Yet while “Chinese water clocks were probably the most advances timekeepers of that day” and the first European mechanical clocks were less accurate, the mechanical clock had far greater technological potential.

The Chinese water-wheel towers were astraria – mechanisms for the study and display of the movements of the heavenly bodies. Su Sung’s clock did show the time, but these functions were accessory. Few such clocks were made, and none of them lasted very long. The calendar was a perquisite of sovereignty, like the right to mint coins. Each emperor inaugurated his reign with the promulgation of his calendar, and his time was China’s time: “In effect this was a reserved and secret domain. There was no marketplace of ideas, no diffusion or exchange of knowledge, no continuing and growing pool of skills or information – hence a very uneven transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.”

Su Sung’s clock was discontinued, and this appears to have been the rule rather than the exception. The development of scientific instruments was dominated by false starts. Change came haltingly in the monopolistic atmosphere of the Chinese Imperial system, which often inhibited curiosity and originality. Even the pro-Chinese historian Joseph Needham remarks that from the first water-driven armillary sphere around AD 100 to Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Italian priest and Jesuit missionary who brought mechanical clocks to China – that is, over a span of more than fifteen hundred years – only a half-dozen, perhaps only four, astronomer-clockmakers revived the tradition at irregular intervals. Later, European clocks did attract some Chinese interest, but more as toys and “intricate oddities” than as useful instruments.

According to Landes, “This is clearly a defensive statement. The dismissal of European devices as oddities suggests that we have here not only an expression of indifference but a deliberate rejection. This attitude was crucial to subsequent Chinese horological development. Everything was changed drastically by the simple fact that once Ricci brought European clocks to China, progress lay not in the transformation of indigenous technology but in the adoption of an alien device….China was the Middle Kingdom, the centre of the world. The peoples round about had nothing to give to China but tribute. Ricci, for all his gentility and courtliness, came to China as a barbarian (by Chinese definition), so for the Chinese the very fact of Ricci’s knowledge and wares turned the world upside down.”

Matteo Ricci spent many years in China during the late 1500s and early 1600s and was clearly impressed with some of the things he saw in this very large and sophisticated economy:

“The Chinese are a most industrious people, and most of the mechanical arts flourish among them. They have all sorts of raw material and they are endowed by nature with a talent for trading, both of which are potent factors in bringing about a high development of the mechanical arts….Their skill in the manufacture of fireworks is really extraordinary, and there is scarcely anything which they cannot cleverly imitate with them. They are especially adept in reproducing battles and in making rotary spheres of fire, fiery trees, fruit, and the like, and they seem to have no regard for expense where fireworks are concerned. When I was in Nanking I witnessed a display for the celebration of the first month of the year, which is their great festival, and on this occasion I calculated that they consumed enough powder to carry on a sizeable war for a number of years.”

Even at this point, when the printing press was well established in Europe, Ricci commented on the large number of cheap printed books in circulation in China and noted that the whole country was divided up by a sophisticated system of rivers and artificial canals in addition to roads. However, he did have some critical comments about certain Chinese attitudes: “Because of their ignorance of the size of the earth and the exaggerated opinion they have of themselves, the Chinese are of the opinion that only China among the nations is deserving of admiration. They look on all other people not only as barbarous but as unreasoning animals.”

One should give the Chinese credit for allowing foreigners such as Matteo Ricci to have posts within the Imperial bureaucracy in the first place, though this was greatly eased in his case by Ricci’s diplomatic personality and his willingness to blend in. Other European Jesuit missionaries and scholars followed, among them the Flemish mathematician and astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) and the German Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666).

The British, French and other European navies needed timepieces to measure a ship’s distances globally, whereas the Chinese viewed mechanical clocks as toys. Japan was the only Asian country where clocks of the Western type were being made in the seventeenth century. Yet according to the book The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention by Robert Temple, “Su Sung’s book with its diagrams and detailed text survived intact from 1094 until the present time, when Joseph Needham has translated and published it in his book Heavenly Clockwork. Su Sung’s clock was possibly the greatest mechanical achievement of the Middle Ages anywhere on the globe…knowledge of its principles spread to Europe leading to the development of mechanical clocks in the West two centuries later.”

Temple’s book is so focused on the alleged superiority of China that it at times resembles propaganda more than serious scholarship. It contains many debatable claims and a few highly questionable ones, for instance that chess was invented in China; most historians believe that the first version of this game was invented in India. Temple frequently assumes, in this mirroring Needham, that this or that Chinese invention was transferred to Europe, sometimes without providing a plausible chain of transmission for this. The Chinese invention of gunpowder is widely accepted by most scholars, and it is possible, though by not proven, that the very concept of book printing had spread from East Asia to fifteenth century Europe where Gutenberg developed his printing press. In contrast, there are some scholars who believe that the compass was invented independently in several places, including possibly in Europe. I was unable to settle this issue while writing this text.

The mechanical clock was by all accounts an original European invention; just as all forms of paper currently in use ultimately can be traced back to the Chinese invention of this substance, so all mechanical clocks date back to the European invention of such devices. We don’t know exactly where and when the first true mechanical clocks were made, but it was somewhere in Europe and most likely in the second half of the thirteenth century. The first eyeglasses were made at roughly the same time, probably around the 1280s in northern Italy. We still know less about the circumstances surrounding the first mechanical clocks.

The most prominent element of European society at this time which had long constituted a timekeeping constituency was the Christian Church, particularly the monasteries of its Roman Catholic branch. The Benedictines were joined by other monastic rules after the eleventh century, among them the Augustinians and especially the Cistercians. Punctuality was important in the daily schedule of the monks, and David S. Landes believes that it was in the strictly regulated life of European monasteries that the mechanical clock was born. Not all scholars share this view, as Landes himself freely admits, but it is a plausible hypothesis and at least as likely as any alternative explanation I’ve seen. Until scholars have uncovered more evidence, this should in my view be treated as the most likely possibility.


From Wikipedia.

The so-called canonical hours indicated the times of day at which canon law prescribed certain prayers to be said. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia online, “By canonical hour is understood all the fixed portion of the Divine Office which the Church appoints to be recited at the different hours. The term was borrowed from the custom of the Jews, and passed into the speech of the early Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles we see that prayer was designated by the hour at which it was said (Acts 3:1). The observance from being optional having become obligatory for certain classes of persons in virtue of canons or ordinances promulgated by the Church, each portion of the Divine Office was called a canonical hour, and the whole of the prayers fixed for a certain day took the name of canonical hours. This term was extended to apply to the book or collection which contained these prayers, hence the expression ‘book of hours’. The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most ancient documents in which the expression, canonical hours is found.”

The fixing of a daily schedule of prayer, work and study among the monks was part of a highly organized society where there was little distinction between worldly and religious activities. The earliest mechanisms were not necessarily clocks as we understand it and did not have big bells, merely a clock that rang loudly enough to get the bell ringer out of bed. At least some of them made use of an escapement-type mechanism which was often weight-driven. It may have been this mechanism that was the forerunner of the clock escapement. Before the invention of the weight-driven mechanical clock, the clepsydra (water clock) and sundial were both known as horologia. The term was soon applied to the new device, too:

“Thus we get French horloge, Italian orologio, Spanish reloj. But new things often call for new names: the English called the new device a clock; the Dutch and Flemings, a klokke. And what is a clock, but a bell? (Compare medieval Dutch clokke, German Glocke.) Even the French, who stayed with the old name, changed their word for bell at about this time, from sein or sain (from the Latin signum) to cloche. Something new had come on the scene. Seen ontologically and functionally, these timekeeping machines began as automated bells….Monasteries were beehives of varied activity, the largest productive enterprises of medieval Europe. Brothers, lay brothers and servants were busy everywhere – in the chapel, the library, the writing room (scriptorium), in the fields, the mill, the mines, the workshops, the laundry, the kitchen. They lived and worked to bells. The big bells tolled the canonical hours and the major changes, and their peal carried far and wide, not only within the convent domain but as far as the wind could take it. And the little bells tinkled insistently throughout the offices and meals, calling the participants to attention and signalling the start of a new prayer, ceremony, or activity.”

Bells were the drivers behind a new standard for punctuality enforced by the monastic orders, especially during the second half of the High Middle Ages (AD 1000-1300) and with the Cistercians in a leading role:

“Their agriculture was the most advanced in Europe; their factories and mines, the most efficient. They made extensive use of hired labour, and their concern for costs made them turn wherever possible to labour-saving devices. Their Rule enjoined them, for example, to build near rivers, so as to have access to water power; and they learned to use this in multifunctional, staged installations designed to exploit power capacity to the maximum. For such an undertaking, timekeeper and bells were an indispensable instrument of organization and control; and it may be that it was the proliferation of this order throughout Europe and the expansion of its productive activities that stimulated the interest in finding a superior timekeeper and precipitated the invention of the mechanical clock. The Cistercian abbeys of central Europe must have had their hands full getting satisfactory performance from clepsydras. Whatever the inspiration, it seems clear that in the century or two preceding the appearance of the mechanical clock, there was a substantial advance in the technique of hydraulic timekeeping and concomitant diffusion of the new methods and devices. For the first time we see the temporal discipline of the cloister explicitly linked to the horologium.”

Even though the mechanical clock may well have originated within the monastic community, it soon spread beyond it. Already by the fourteenth century, many of the most impressive clocks were paid for by princes and courtiers or by the new urban, secular elites which had grown tremendously in number during the preceding time period. Clocks were the new status symbols of high-tech and wealth. There were also greater practical needs for timekeeping devices among commercial populations than there was in rural areas. The first clocks were not terribly accurate by present-day standards, but if there was only one central clock in a town, it didn’t have to be too accurate; what mattered was that there was one time common to all.

The invention spread rapidly throughout Europe. A public clock which struck the hours was erected in Milan in 1335, and the oldest still-surviving clock in England is the one at Salisbury Cathedral, dating from 1386. These early clocks probably had errors of up to half an hour a day. It was only after the introduction of the pendulum clock in the seventeenth century that minutes began to appear on the clock face, followed by seconds on marine chronometers and astronomical clocks. By the early 1800s, accuracy had improved to less than a second.

In the early fourteenth century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri made a literary reference to a clock that struck the hours. In Padua, Italy, Giovanni Dondi (1330-1388), who had a great interest in astronomy, in 1348 began working on his great astrarium or planetarium, completed in 1364. Another early clockmaker was the Englishman Richard of Wallingford.

Richard was a talented mathematician and was, like many other medieval scholars, influenced by Ptolemy’s astrological treatise the Tetrabiblos and by Muslim writers on astrology such Albumasar from the ninth century. Trained at Oxford, he became a monk and then abbot of St. Albans, where he designed his clock around 1330, shaped like an astrolabe. His story has been told by John North in God’s Clockmaker: “By no means everyone who set eyes on the St Albans clock would have known how to read the time off its dial, but most would have known that it incorporated a grandiose astrolabe. Even those who did not understand it would have been dimly aware that they were looking at an abstract representation of the heavens, such as they had seen on small manual instruments – on that owned by the abbot, for example.”

Other clocks were built at Strasbourg Cathedral, at Lund Cathedral in Sweden, Cremona Cathedral in Italy, in Bern, Switzerland, Split, Croatia and elsewhere. Many of these clocks were highly ornamented. One beautiful astronomical clock is the Prague Orloj in the Czech Republic, created by Jan Šindel (1370-1443), a professor at Charles University, together with clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň. The Prague astrolabe clock was constructed around 1410, but has undergone numerous modifications since then. The original clock probably had only an astrolabe dial with a concentric ring that was adjusted to Bohemian hours each day at sunset. A new striking mechanism and the Moon hand was added in the mid-seventeenth century, and moving figures of the Apostles were added some decades after that.

Clockworks were initially heavy and cumbersome devices used on major public buildings. Spring-driven clocks appeared on the scene gradually from the late fifteenth century onwards. The principle of the spring itself was an old one, but clocks made on this principle were hard to make. With miniaturization evolved the portable timepiece we know as the watch. The first watches were worn as jewelry, often around the neck, later to be replaced by pocket watches. Wristwatches only became popular in the twentieth century.

According to David S. Landes, “Myth has it that the watch was invented around the beginning of the sixteenth century by a certain Peter Henlein (alias Hele) in Nuremberg, an old centre of metalwork and instrument-and clockmaking, as well as of trade and finance. It was a city that had the workers, the craft tradition, the international contacts and the market….[b]ut there is no hard evidence in is favour, in spite of the repeated appearance in the antiques marketplace of watches signed diversely Henlein and Hele, the better to gull those amateurs who want to buy the first watch ever made. Italian historians have disputed the German claim to priority. They point out, persuasively in my opinion, that the invention of the watch was implicit in the small table clock. As soon as the clock was small enough to be carried on the person, someone was bound to do so; and as soon as someone did, the very usefulness of the object would have called forth copies and improvements. In this sense, there was probably no invention, just a silent transition occurring in several centres more or less contemporaneously, probably in the last quarter of the fifteenth century.”

Once the fashion of wearing watches took hold, makers vied for smallness; Francis I of France (1494-1547) paid a small fortune in 1518 for two that could be placed in the hilt of a dagger, and Elizabeth I (1533-1603) of England wore a finger ring that not only told the time but served as an alarm. The small timekeeper was a revolutionary instrument which stimulated technical skills.

Galileo Galilei studied the properties of the pendulum, but never constructed a clock based on that knowledge. The Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens demonstrated how a pendulum could be used to regulate a clock. Huygens was a great astronomer and mathematician, but he did excellent work on mechanics and momentum in addition to this. John Gribbin writes:

“Huygens became widely known, however (even outside scientific circles), for his invention of the pendulum clock (apparently entirely independently of Galileo), which he patented in 1657. His motivation for this work came from his interest in astronomy, where the need for accurate timekeeping had long been obvious, but was becoming more pressing as more accurate observing instruments were designed. Unlike Galileo’s design, Huygens’s proved to be a rugged and practical timekeeping device (although not rugged enough to keep accurate time at sea, which was one of the main unsolved problems of the day), and in 1658 clocks built to Huygens’s design began to appear in church towers across Holland, and soon spread across Europe. It was from 1658 onwards, and thanks to Christiaan Huygens, that ordinary people began to have access to accurate timepieces, instead of estimating the time of day by the position of the Sun. It is typical of the thoroughness with which Huygens carried out all his work that the investigation of pendulums led him not only to the design of a practical clock, but to a fully worked out theory of the behaviour of oscillating systems in general, not just pendulums.”

Huygens also developed a balance spring clock at roughly the same time as the great Englishman Robert Hooke. With the pendulum clock, it became possible for the first time to build timepieces accurate to less than a minute a day. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this was reduced to a second and eventually to a hundredth of a second or less.

Although accurate pendulum clocks existed by the seventeenth century, keeping time at sea with them was difficult for practical reasons, and progress with astronomical methods was slow. In 1714 the British Government offered £20,000 for a solution which could provide longitude to within half-a-degree (2 minutes of time). The Englishman John Harrison (1693-1776) spent the rest of his life perfecting a mechanism that would fulfill these criteria. Harrison was a carpenter with little formal education, but with exceptional mechanical insight and determination. His famous H4 model was built during the 1750s, when virtually no-one yet thought of the pocket watch as a serious timekeeper. H4 was 13 cm in diameter and resembled a large pocket watch. The Board of Longitude, however, were reluctant to grant him the recognition and money he had properly earned. Captain Cook set out on his second voyage of discovery with a copy of H4. He returned in 1775, and the daily rate had never exceeded 8 seconds during the entire voyage. John Harrison’s excellent marine chronometer was belatedly recognized as having solved the longitude problem.

While the early production of mechanical clocks was centered in countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France and England, tiny, landlocked Switzerland was eventually to become more closely associated in the popular imagination with the production of mechanical clocks and watches than any other nation in the world. During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the reformer Jean Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva had no use for ornaments and vanities in a city that once had a strong jewelry manufacture, but strict Calvinists were willing to make an exception for watches. David S. Landes elaborates:

“Geneva is a small place. It measures, inclusive of attached country districts, about a hundred square miles – less than London proper, little more than a seventh of Greater London. A fifth of that is under water. In the middle of the sixteenth century, its population stood at 12,500; two hundred years later it had doubled, to about 25,000. By way of comparison, London at the latter date numbered nearly 700,000 inhabitants, and Paris over half a million. Person for person, though, the Geneva of those days, a tiny republic in a world of monarchies and principalities, was probably the most productive and creative city in Europe. This owed to its role as a place of refuge for Protestant victims of Catholic persecution, which brought it some of the most independent, best-educated and most highly skilled subjects of the countries around. Some of these families – the Facios (Fatios), Fazys, Turrettinis and others – were living testimony to the power of heredity, for they produced distinguished artists, businessmen, savants, scientists, statesmen and writers generation after generation, for hundreds of years. Among the refugees who came to Geneva were watchmakers from France, where Protestants constituted the elite of the horological profession.”

Was there a connection between the Swiss tradition for clockmaking and Protestantism? Possibly in the Weberian sense of work ethic, but Landes argues that the connection is more likely to be found in the emphasis on literacy and numeracy. The mountain folk could all read and write, and they could reckon – the girls as well as the boys. Whatever the cause, beginning in the eighteenth century, Switzerland became the center of a watchmaking industry, particularly in the villages of the Jura Mountains. Excellent Swiss craftsmen travelled abroad; the best known is the great clockmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823). The Swiss kept at the forefront of technical innovation and enjoyed the backing of a well-developed financial sector, above all of their famous banking system. The Polish man Antoni Patek (1811-1877) created the famous watchmaker company Patek Philippe & Co.

Much of the production was export-orientated, not only catering to the Western market but to the Asian market, to China and India. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, clocks figured with increasing frequency among the gifts to prominent individuals in the Middle East, and then as articles of commerce. Maintenance and repair of these unfamiliar devices were a problem in the Islamic world, and the practice arose of sending craftsmen along with the gift of clocks, to demonstrate their use and to repair them when necessary. The first public clocks were set up in the Middle East as late as in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Much of the early European interest in clocks and watches was in no sense utilitarian. As mentioned before, many portable clocks were worn as jewelry, as fashion statements and status symbols. However, next to the grinding of glass lenses, the making of fine watches was among the most precise crafts in early modern Europe, and the technological know-how generated from this fed back into the making of other types of machinery.

As Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell Jr. write in How The West Grew Rich, “As early as the sixteenth century, clocks had their eager collectors: the Emperor Charles V is said to have had three thousand of them. The invention of the telescope and the Copernican revolution in astronomy in the seventeenth century supplied an impetus for improvements in the accuracy of clocks. In struggling with the problems of building accurate clocks and portable watches, clockmakers advanced Western knowledge of precision machining; the effects of changes in temperature on different materials; friction; the uses and misuses of gear trains, levers, ratchets, springs, and other elements of mechanical systems; selection of suitable materials; lubrication; and mechanical durability. By 1750, when the Industrial Revolution was about to impose immense demands on the skill and ingenuity of mechanical designers, Western clockmakers had already brought mechanical design to an advanced state of development.”

With increasingly accurate clocks, in Britain people could literally knock at the door of the astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, to have their timepieces standardized against astronomical time. Britain was at this time the world’s leading maritime nation. British ships with their marine chronometers calculated longitude from the Greenwich meridian, which was considered to have longitude zero. This was internationally recognized in 1884, and the longitude (0°) of the Royal Greenwich Observatory is now known as the prime meridian. Banks and firms in the City of London, too, needed to know the exact time of financial transactions. After the introduction of railways, local time in various towns and cities needed to be synchronized against a national standard, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

As Rosenberg and Birdzell state, “Horology was thus a jeweler’s or astronomer’s art, with one exception: the marine chronometer. Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, navigators had no reliable or accurate way to find a ship’s longitude, and as a result many lives, ships, and cargoes were lost in strandings on shores and reefs that had been thought to be many miles distant….Later, in the nineteenth century, accurate watches were needed both for the operation of the railroads and for passengers, who had to get to the station in time….Clocks, watches, and time came to mark the life of the factories as well. As the rhythm of machines established a working day measured in hours and paid by hours worked, time became money.”

The traditional clockmaking industry in the twentieth century met strong competition from electrical and finally digital clocks. This time, the Americans and eventually the Japanese played major roles in addition to Europeans. During the 1960s and 70s, the industry was faced with a challenge from the watches of American Timex, which the Swiss handled in their usual, dynamic way, by studying it and learning from it. The quartz revolution, however, came close to decimating the Swiss watchmaking industry. It began in the late nineteenth century with the work of the French physicist Pierre Curie. David S. Landes explains:

“The antecedents of this revolution go back to the turn of the century, when Pierre Curie observed the phenomenon known as piezo-electricity: certain crystals, among them quartz crystals, actually vibrate mechanically – change shape back and forth – when an alternating current of electricity passes through them. This oscillatory effect found one of its first and most important applications in radio broadcasting, where crystals were used as energy resonators and controllers of frequency. In the beginning, the stability of these frequencies left much to be desired, but since there was then room enough for everybody, one could live with these variances. All of that changed with the rapid multiplication of commercial and public broadcasts in the 1920s….In scientific research just about everything is connected, so that one discovery incites and leads to others. So the invention of a technique to permit a more intense and effective use of radio waves yielded as by-product a new kind of timekeeper, more accurate, reliable and precise than any other. Remember the physicist’s definition: every stable frequency is a clock, as long as one can count the beats. These crystal resonators, then, inaugurated a new era of time measurement, that of high-frequency timekeeping.”

It took decades for quartz clocks to become small and cheap enough for personal wear. The Swiss were latecomers to this development whereas the Americans and especially the Japanese excelled at making electronic quartz watches with digital displays. The demand for these devices grew rapidly during the 1970s and 80s, often with Japanese companies such as Seiko in the lead. The Japanese played a prominent role in the electronics industry and contributed significantly to the digital revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. Quartz watches were technically so different from traditional watches that they almost constituted a new industry, but one that happened to compete directly with the established industry.

Yet this did not spell the demise of the mechanical clock as a popular product, as some observers predicted when digital quartz watches first flooded the market. The Swiss fought back and have managed to reassert themselves as the major manufacturers of prestigious, high-end clocks and watches. In sheer numbers China, which has in the early twenty-first century become “the workshop of the world,” made up for her status as latecomer to the manufacture of watches and became the world’s largest producer of timepieces by volume. Switzerland has so far managed to maintain its edge when it comes to production by value.

To some extent the mechanical clock has been reborn as a fashion statement, as it was in the beginning. We should of course keep in mind that even cheap watches today are vastly more accurate than mechanical clocks were in the beginning. They are often water-proof and have numerous added functions undreamed of by early horologists. Quartz clocks have themselves long since been surpassed by atomic clocks in accuracy. The time when mechanical clocks constituted the cutting-edge of scientific timekeeping devices is permanently over, but it was the mechanical clock that opened up the modern world of accurate timekeeping.

As Lewis Mumford says in his classic book Technics and Civilization, “The clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men. The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age….In its relationship to determinable quantities of energy, to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product, accurate timing, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics; and at each period it has remained in the lead: it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire.”

David S. Landes believes that the invention of the mechanical clock in medieval Europe was “one of the great inventions in the history of mankind,” with revolutionary implications for cultural values, technological change, social and political organization and personality:

“Why so important? After all, man had long known and used other kinds of timekeepers – sundials, water clocks, fire clocks, sand clocks – some of which were at least as accurate as the early mechanical clocks. Wherein lay the novelty, and why was this device so much more influential than its predecessors? The answer, briefly put, lay in its enormous technological potential. The mechanical clock was self-contained, and once horologists learned to drive it by means of a coiled spring rather than a falling weight, it could be miniaturized so as to be portable, whether in the household or on the person. It was this possibility of widespread private use that laid the basis for time discipline, as against time obedience. One can, as we shall see, use public clocks to summon people for one purpose or another; but that is not punctuality. Punctuality comes from within, not from without. It is the mechanical clock that made possible, for better or worse, a civilization attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance.”

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this brief, but informative essay. What strikes me, though, is that prior to the sixteenth century, clocks and watches were rather imprecise devices and thus not very useful per se. However much one wishes to argue about the need for a time keeping device for, say, merchants having appointments, a clock that can be off by half an hour cannot be that useful. So I can only conclude that clocks, and especially watches, were pretty much luxury toys, even in Europe, as they have been inferred to be in China, at least prior to the sixteenth century. After the sixteenth century, however, the needs of navigation were such that there was much more demand for accuracy, in particular for longitude measurement.

    Now to those who still claim that the Chinese would not understand the “rationality” of accurate time keeping, I will cite this passage from a famous Chinese novel of the 18th century, The Dream of the Red Chamber. In it, the young, ambitious and talented young woman Xi Feng, who has been put in charge of organizing the extremely long and complex funerals of her relative, gives a speech to the team of household servants :

    “Those who are used to working with me at the other place always have a watch handy, and everything they do, no matter how small a thing it is, is done at a fixed time. You may not have watches, but at least there is a clock in your masters drawing-room you can look at. So here are the main times to remember. At half past six I shall come over to hear the roll call. At ten o’clock I take my lunch. I shall see people with reports to make or tallies to collect up to, but not after, eleven o’clock. At seven in the evening, as soon as the paper-offerings have been burnt, I shall make a personal tour of inspection; and when I get back from it, I shall issue those on night duty with their keys. The next day I shall be back here again at half past six.”

    So much for Chinese irrationality, isn’t it? And, moreover, coming from a woman!

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