The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How time was measured, and what it meant, across the centuries

An elaborate clock in a medieval cathedral in Lübeck, Germany, includes a dial tracking festival days and astronomical events. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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In his 1891 novel, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” Thomas Hardy evokes with a single sentence the slow fading of a constellation of once-dominant attitudes about time, space and money. His heroine, Tess, “started on her way up the dark and crooked lane or street not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day.” As Tess traverses the street, Hardy sketches a broader cultural path: from an older era when a rough delineation of hours sufficed to an age when even inches of land are precisely measured and appraised. From our own harried vantage, late-19th-century England might seem like an idyllic era of rustic leisure, but Hardy’s novel depicts a world in which the meandering of a dark and crooked lane is already an anachronism.

How have different ages conceptualized and marked the passing of time, and how do these various attitudes manifest in culture and consciousness, from the straightness of our streets to the subjective experience of those moving along them? In “About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks,” David Rooney, a former museum curator and director of the Antiquarian Horological Society, assembles an engaging miscellany of stories and details about timekeeping technologies spanning a huge range of cultures and periods — from ancient Rome and China to 14th-century Italy, 19th-century India and many others. Though the book aspires to engage grand themes of ethics, power and historical transformation, it rises only intermittently above the thickets of moderately interesting trivia to survey this broader landscape.

The book is not in fact a history of civilization in 12 clocks. Each of the 12 chapters is organized around a broad theme — virtue, resistance, knowledge, identity, etc. — that a collection of loosely related examples of timekeeping devices is supposed to illuminate. Much of this material is quite interesting, but the book’s frenetic pace can make it hard to catch more than occasional glimpses of meaning. In the space of just two pages, for instance, Rooney leaps from a tower clock in 14th-century Italy to a cannon fired at noon each day by the British in 19th-century Cape Town to a boom of clockmakers in Australia in the 19th century to clock towers in British India in the 1850s. When he does surface for a broader reflection, it’s banal: “Whatever the circumstances of any individual clock, power politics was never far away.” Closer analysis of these individual circumstances, and a smaller set of examples more deeply considered, might have enabled more original conclusions.

But the details of his innumerable examples are often very intriguing. In a medieval cathedral in Lübeck, Germany, an astonishingly intricate mechanical clock behind the altar included niches with carved figures representing the deadly sins; zodiac signs surrounding a calendar; and a dial showing the moon’s age, religious festival days and solar as well as lunar eclipses. A nearby inscription articulated the intended moral of this extraordinary display: “So often as Thou hearest the melody of the sonorous bell, think then of God who governs the Stars; and at the same time praise Him.”

A decidedly more worldly motive spurred the invention of increasingly accurate chronometric devices that enabled the calculation of longitude at sea. Though Philip II of Spain offered a cash reward in 1567 for a practical longitude reckoning system for sailors, it was not until the 1750s that John Harrison developed sufficiently accurate timekeeping devices that could withstand the swings in humidity and temperature at sea, allowing an accurate fixed reference time to be compared with the time at sea, as the difference in times tracks longitude.

The accuracy of a clock, of course, is a matter of degree, and the subsequent technical achievements in this domain would have astonished Harrison. In the 1920s, the best mechanical pendulum clocks would gain or lose no more than a second every two or three months. By 1955, an atomic clock was accurate to one second every 300 years; in the 1980s Britain’s National Physical Laboratory made atomic clocks accurate within one second every 300,000 years. Atomic clocks currently being developed have an accuracy of plus or minus one second in 30 billion years.

The development and dissemination of increasingly accurate clocks were never politically neutral, as Rooney rightly emphasizes. The standardization of time in the late 19th century not only enabled the coordination of railroad schedules and financial markets, it also allowed the enforcement of Victorian laws that limited the hours during which pubs and bars could sell alcohol. Henry Ford was fascinated by clocks and watchmaking, and it’s not hard to see how the intricate meshing of interdependent mechanical parts could form a template for his own factories using humans as replaceable components in a broader production system. Amazon’s fulfillment centers are one of the more disturbing culminations of this same mania for hyper-regulated efficiency at all costs.

With its hasty rushing between examples and themes, Rooney’s book itself feels calibrated to slot into the schedule of an overly busy reader snatching a few minutes at the end of an overstuffed day. One longs to wander with Hardy’s Tess down a dark, winding path, tracking the time only by the sun overhead.

About Time

A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

By David Rooney

271 pp. $28.95