As the time traveler from H.G. Wells’ classic story realizes in this scene from the 1960 motion picture, time is a subtle thing. And, for many who may consider the historical forces that gave rise to the modern world, time as a subject of study is as easily overlooked. Like a fish pondering water, our submergence in the flow of time can make it difficult to comprehend just how fundamental time consciousness and timekeeping technology have been to the evolution of our civilization. But, to wind up the great mechanism of modernity, and set it ticking away to the steady beat of progress we’ve come to take for granted, our mastery of clockwork was critical.

The nature of our awareness of time today, and our ability to measure it with perfect accuracy and precision, are historically unique. Through the ages, the vast majority of people regarded time as an endless cycle, something measured merely in terms of life and death, summer and winter, new moon and full, night and day. All of these things revolved in a circle. There was no real beginning and no end, only renewal. No one thought of the past or the future the way we do, for unlike their cyclical notions of time, we have come to see time as something linear, something that sweeps us forward through history along a trajectory that can be counted. And based on that awareness, we endeavor to make the future better than the past by using time in explicitly conscientious ways; we use time to coordinate not only our personal lives but our collective efforts, from prayer to mass production; we use the dimension of time to measure dimensions of space; we judge by time, valuing certain things by how little time they take or how much.

This temporal choreography sets us apart from our ancestors at least as much as any other modern institution, and it all hinges on our hard-earned technological power to measure time. The instrument of that power, the instrument that makes our relationship with time today so historically unique, is clockwork.

Clocks enable our economy and society to function with a level of accuracy and precision no one could have dreamed of even a thousand years ago. Clocks form the backbone of science too; without them we could never have mapped the heavens or the earth, or interpreted evolution, or exploited the frequencies of electromagnetism, or built computers, or achieved countless other insights and innovations. So fundamental are clocks to our way of life that it’s probably easier to isolate the few modern anomalies that are not somehow tied to these machines. Indeed, no history of the modern world is complete without accounting for how we have come to measure time.

Where did the authority of our clockwork come from? After countless millennia of barely grasping its measure, how did the perfection of this great mechanism become the guiding force of our age?

I give you measuring time, and how it began.


Select Bibliography for Measuring Time

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time, Bloomsbury USA, 2010.

David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, Harvard University Press, 1983.

Jo Ellen Barnett, Time’s Pendulum: From Sundials to Atomic Clocks, the Fascinating History of Timekeeping and How Our Discoveries Changed the World, Harcourt, 1998.

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