Thursday, March 1, 2012

The invention of Time

Ancient and medieval people had a very different understanding of time than we do today.  We measure time to the minute and second (or in sporting events, to the tenth and hundredth of a second).  To peoples from older times, this would have been incomprehensible.  Their day was regulated by the Sun - work began at daybreak, and ended when it was too dark to see.  Only the rich could afford candles, and so for most people evenings weren't for soirées, but for sleeping.

The first people who began to care about time as we understand it were the great Monasteries.  The prayer cycle - the Liturgy of the Hours - had an explicit temporal flow, from Matins (Midnight) to Lauds (dawn), Prime, Terce, Sext (noon), Nones, Vespers (dusk), and Compline (before bed).  Keeping track of the canonical hours at night was left to the most junior novices.

You didn't need a clock at a Monastery, because the junior novices would keep track of the hours for everyone.  But as the understanding of the hours became part of an Educated Man's experience, newly wealthy cities began to look for mechanical ways to track time.  And so, the great tower clocks were designed, as city vied with city for top horological honors.  The clocks didn't just keep time, but soon added automatons acting out scenes from the Bible.

The great Rathaus-Glockenspiel clock of Munich is one of the best examples of this.  43 bells and 32 full-sized figures chimes each day in the Marienplatz.  Knights joust, lovers wed, and birds chirp, all in clockwork driven automaton glory.  It was Medieval conspicuous consumption.
For now hath Time made me his numb'ring clock.
My thoughts are minutes, and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is

- Shakespeare, Richard II
By Shakespeare's time, the watch ("watch" and "clock" were used interchangeably as terms) was so common as to be used as a metaphor by the greatest metaphorist of all time.  Time was no longer regulated by the Sun, the daily diurnal cycle; now the hands of the clock pointed accusingly at the tardy.  The Sword of Damocles had been hung, it's steady tick tick tick to remind us that time is money, and tempus fugit.  While we now could order our lives with precision, something innocent had been lost.  In a sense, we had been cast out of the garden into the modern sense of time.

Outlook schedules to the quarter hour, our cell phones get time synchronized via invisible rays of isochronism, and one wonders who is now the master.  Alas, it is sometimes all too obvious:

Jay lost his watch.  He says that he found it, though.  Who is Master?  Jay is Master.


libertyman said...

Have you read David Landes' Revolution in Time? A fascinating book (and good for your vocabulary, too!)

Borepatch said...

libertyman, you get full marks! I own Revolution In Time (as well as a couple of other Landes' books). There's a review in my sidebar of his The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations.

I'm a huge fan of him.

Most of this post came from that book. You've caught me out. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Another blogger (I disremember who) gave a scholarly lecture on the history of the time piece.

Paraphrasing - he said the first 'watches' were basically mobile clocks used by naval officers and other VIP's that needed to count time more accurately than most.

Those morphed into the pocket watch that was worn as an item of jewelry more as a status symbol than anything else.

The first wrist watches were made at the turn of the last century - necessary for pilots and artillery officers of the time. Manufacturing improvements allowed the watches to be made smaller and smaller so that even women had pretty, petite watches to use for the everyday.

Finally, the watch was disposed of altogether when they put time keeping on cell phones and we are basically back to carrying around clocks again! LOL!

What will the absent minded right wing gun nut do when he loses his cell phone? :)

Ya know - that would probably make him happier yet!

Jay G said...

I stand in awe. Sit, actually, but still...

All this because I misplaced my $20 Timex under a grocery store receipt...

The internets are a wonderful place...

wolfwalker said...

"To peoples from older times, this would have been incomprehensible. Their day was regulated by the Sun - work began at daybreak, and ended when it was too dark to see."

Um, not entirely. Sun-dials, which could measure time in hours, go back to Ancient Egypt. Water clocks are almost as old, maybe even older. Outside work began and ended with the Sun, that's true, but inside work could continue late into the night by use of candles, torches, and oil lamps.

The modern accurate-to-the-second pocket-watch is a direct descendant of the various marine chronometers that were invented in the mid-1700s to solve the Longitude Problem. The Longitude Problem was simply that for a ship at sea, telling latitude is relatively simple, but telling longitude is a cast-iron bitch. Of all the methods that were tried over the centuries, the best one involved accurate measurement of time. But no existing clock was accurate enough, until the marine chronometers that were small, easily portable, and almost magically accurate even when carried on a ship. The mechanism used in marine chronometers eventually evolved into the first accurate pocket-watches and wristwatches.

Borepatch said...

Wolfwalker, you are correct, but even by Shakespeare's time people's perception of time had changed radically from the medieval period. The chronometers refined the technology, but the mental shift had been made perhaps two centuries before Harrison and the Longitude.

Spec-Ops Medic said...

I always liked the Prague lunar clock built in 1410