Monday, April 20, 2009

Fjordman: A History of Mechanical Clocks

Fjordman’s latest essay, “A History of Mechanical Clocks”, has been published at La Yijad en Eurabia. Some excerpts are below:

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.
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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.”

Read the rest at AMDG’s place.


spackle said...

Great article Fjordman. I have something of a fetish for old clocks and pocket watches with a small collection. To this day I carry a pocket watch and turn my nose up at any battery operated timepiece. There is something very soothing about having to wind, clean and keep track of ones timepieces. Not to mention the lost art of craftsmanship.

spackle said...

I should add that the sound of a church bell is much nicer and less totalitarian then a man screaming through a PA system to come worship.

Fjordman said...

Thank you for posting.

Spackle: I like old clocks, too. I don't think mechanical clocks will ever completely disappear. There will always be a market for them, even if they become products of secondary importance compared to other timekeeping devices.

Charles Martel said...

Marvelous article. Thank you Fjordman, for your continued effort on behalf of the struggle against Islamic tyranny. You are a treasure as is this fine blog which you grace with your wisdom and insights.