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When Every Minute Counts

August 13, 2021  | 

For generations, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich tested each of the British Navy’s chronometers. These precision instruments—deck clocks used to calculate longitude and thus fix a ship’s position at sea—helped ensure safe navigation. The observatory’s testing room hummed with activity: “What a wonderful instance of the proof of our maritime power is this apartment!” exclaimed one 19th-century astronomer.

Yet power can be a burden, and observatory staff began to tire of visitors bearing chronometers who interrupted official business to ask for the time. In 1836, an observatory assistant started taking a precisely accurate pocket watch out to chronometer makers for weekly visits instead. His wife assumed the task after his death, and their daughter carried on the work until World War II. Hand to hand, from the Prime Meridian throughout London and then across the sea, time was delivered. In this way, clocks made empire.

Yet if timepieces could empower, they could also dominate. As David Rooney, a former curator at the Royal Observatory, writes in “About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks,” the British used timekeeping as one more tool of imperial repression. Colonial authorities marked noon each day at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa by firing a cannon: hardly subtle. Some 100 British-built clock towers stood out over the landscape of India during the colonial period, reminding residents who was in charge. Nor did the British have a monopoly on horological symbolism. Mr. Rooney writes that, “wherever we are, as far back as we care to look, we can find that monumental timekeepers mounted high up on towers or public buildings have been put there to keep us in order.”

“About Time” is a fascinating volume on what clocks say both to us and about us, from the Roman sundial to the GPS satellite. Our ancestors have used timepieces to make war, seek peace, advance knowledge and enforce virtue. Every clock has some ulterior motive—political, social, economic—beyond merely measuring time, Mr. Rooney asserts. In its omnipresence and adaptability, the clock becomes a totem of the human experience, like currency. Mr. Rooney offers not a comprehensive study of timekeeping but instead an episodic survey. “About Time” is obviously not for those who shrug off the need for a proper wristwatch by saying they can just check their phones. For readers with a longer view, though, and a taste for intellectual history, it is full of riches.

Time and faith go hand in hand, Mr. Rooney writes. “In the Sikh religion, prayers are offered during an early-morning period called Amrit Vela, at dusk and at nighttime. In Hinduism, time is God. In Buddhism, time only exists in our minds—and perhaps our nostrils, as incense-burning clocks were used to mark the passage of time in Buddhist ceremonies in Korea, Japan and China for hundreds of years.” As mechanical timepieces appeared in the 13th century, replacing sundials and water clocks, craftsmen tried to replicate the heavens through earthly designs, fashioning devices whose internal wheels would make revolutions akin to celestial motion. “The idea behind this thinking was that the universe was God’s prototype,” Mr. Rooney writes: “Could humans make production versions of that prototype?”

The results appear across the ancient and modern worlds. The most famous image of Mecca is of course the Great Mosque, to which Muslims from around the globe journey in pilgrimage. Yet looming above them is the Makkah Clock, 141 feet in diameter and situated in a nearly 2,000-foot-high hotel tower completed in 2012. “It is a message to the Islamic world of the power and status of the clerics in Saudi Arabia. But it is also, in a post-colonial world, a message to the West,” Mr. Rooney writes. “The construction of a clock that looks like an Islamic Big Ben, but six times the size and a third of a mile tall, reminds us that fortunes wax and wane.” Brexiteers pushed to have Big Ben mark the U.K.’s departure from the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. Fittingly, a renovation project kept the old clock silent.

Markets depend on timepieces. The oldest stock exchange in the world, in Amsterdam, featured a clock tower whose bell called traders together beginning in 1611. Today atomic clocks facilitate the regulation of high-frequency trading to the millionths of a second. In between, entwined with the story of capitalism itself, lies the history of modern horology, from pendulum clocks to the quartz timepieces (measuring the vibrations of a quartz crystal) that led to a crisis in traditional Swiss watchmaking in the 1970s. In the 19th century, managers weaponized time against labor. To prevent workers from knowing how long they were being held past their shifts, bosses prohibited them from carrying watches and fiddled with the hands of the factory clock.

“About Time” doesn’t just look to the past. It describes a plutonium timekeeper co-built by Japanese watchmaker Seiko that was buried in a capsule in 1970 and meant to keep time for 5,000 years. It describes today’s cesium atomic clocks, accurate to one second every 158 million years. Mr. Rooney writes with concern about the smart technology sitting in our pockets and strapped to our wrists: It “knows the most intimate details of our lives and bodies: our health, our fitness, our menstrual cycles.” As he contemplates the opportunities for mischief embedded in these satellite-controlled technologies, it is easy to write him off as an old-fashioned romantic gazing down fondly at his mechanical wristwatch from Charles Frodsham and Co., a venerable firm from the chronometer era that, Mr. Rooney tells us, now makes hand-crafted devices in a “small workshop in Sussex.” Then again, sometimes the old ways are best.

During the past year and a half, time has warped under the strain of quarantine and behaved in unpredictable ways. For those isolated at home during the pandemic, time has stretched out interminably. Bored yuppies have filled the hours with endless streaming shows and abandoned hobbies. Parents (mainly mothers), forced to try to work remotely while supervising young children, have found too few hours in a given day. Many people will emerge from the pandemic eager to start the next half of their lives, determined not to waste another minute as they had done before.

Time is all we have. How we interact with it is the story of our history, and the artifacts of that interaction are the talismans of civilization. What will our distant ancestors learn from our strange fixation on time-bearing plastic gadgets that offer so many distractions? Whatever form they take, our clocks—or hourglasses, or wristwatches, or smartphones—illuminate our priorities. Mr. Rooney has provided a valuable intellectual journey at a moment ripe for contemplation.

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