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On the Watch

Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World

by David S. Landes
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 482 pp., $20.00

Probably only two mechanical inventions have been fully assimilated by creative literature. One is the railroad train, familiar as image and metaphor to every lover of the blues. The other, one learns from David Landes, is the clock, which first enters poetry in the days of the Roman de la rose and Dante. It takes a civilized historian (not a universal species among specialists in economic and technological history) to know, let alone to translate, medieval French verse, but it takes a first-rate historian to integrate poetry into his argument, and to use Sir John Suckling and Alexander Pope in tracing the growth of standardized time-measurement in the course of the seventeenth century. David Landes is both.

In a way it is the imaginative appeal of this astonishing, and now apparently obsolescent, piece of machinery that is responsible for Revolution in Time, for the book is plainly a byproduct of the author’s decision in mid-life to become a collector of clocks and watches. Yet a good historian is never off duty, even to the extent of lapsing into pure antiquarianism, the infatuated scholar’s equivalent of love letters. Fernand Braudel has claimed that every railroad journey he has taken has taught him something. If the sheer fascination with clockwork and its development provided Landes with his initial stimulus, and if some of his arguments are aimed at other members of the small horological community (who else would care whether “Bilfinger was handicapped in his dating by his spotty data on the history of the early mechanical clocks”?), what he has written about is not just clocks but modern civilization, whose history implies that revolution in the measurement and sense of time that gives his book its title.

To be more precise, the main subject of the book, as one might expect from the author of the classic The Unbound Prometheus,* is the revolution in the world’s capacity to produce, achieved in the course of some six or seven centuries—and rather against the run of all previous history—by the western peninsula of Eurasia, which developed capitalism. The clock happens to be a superb way into this subject and its problems. Not only was it invented among the Western barbarians (the first part of Landes’s book shows why it was not, pace Joseph Needham, invented in China), but the peculiar and revolutionary sense of time it made possible, established, and reflected proved to be essential to modern capitalism, the first and still dominant form of industrial society.

As every businessman knows, “time is money”; industrial work, unlike the labors governed by nature, including human nature, is conceived as a steady, uninterrupted flow between starting and finishing points, and the complex web of economic interactions is bound together by connections that depend on precisely coordinated time. The clock raised basic problems in the development of science and technology, which were inseparable until the nineteenth century. Galileo, Pascal, Hooke, Huygens, Leibniz, Newton: the list of names involved in its transformation “reads like the cast of a Hollywood spectacular in the history of science.” Moreover, starting with medieval craftsmen, the clock gave rise to an industry whose history encapsulates that of modern industrial development as a whole, including its shifts from one country to another.

Clocks are thus instruments for measuring not only time but history. Landes observes that they provide a link between Protestantism and capitalism that Max Weber, strangely enough, overlooked. Calvin, the enemy of distracting jewelry, accepted clocks, which became a Genevan specialty. Where Catholics and Protestants coexisted, as in Augsburg and France, clockmakers were overwhelmingly Protestant. Italy, which probably invented clocks, dropped out of the running both as producer and consumer, providing a chronometric illustration of that “loss of centrality by the once dominant Mediterranean [which] is, as all historians know, one of the classic themes and problems of modern European historiography.” What made otherwise backward Protestant mountain peasants such as those of French Switzerland so receptive to manufacturing watches? Landes argues persuasively (and he might have cited another region of poverty and backwardness that developed high technology, Scotland) that the principal explanation lies in the Protestant contribution to popular literacy and numeracy, which, in the Swiss Jura, applied to girls as well as boys.

At a later stage, he suggests that “the consumption of timepieces may well be the best proxy measure of modernization, better even than energy consumption per capita, which varies significantly with the relative cost of fuel, climatic requirements, and product mix.” Using watches thus sums up “a whole bundle of new work and life requirements and the inculcation of the values and attitudes that make the system go.” In the late nineteenth century their use appears to have increased fastest “in those countries that were on the steepest part of the development curve.”

At the same time, for Landes, the history of clocks provides not only a measure of modernization but a moral. It disproves neoclassical economic historians for whom “the market is perfect; businessmen know their best interests and are rational in their choices; and there is no such thing as failure, only fate.” Skepticism about historical (and economic) inevitability, usually directed against vulgar Marxists, today finds itself homing in on a very different form of vulgar scientism. For clock- and watchmaking is not constrained by location. All it needs is human skills, know-how, and enterprise that can be available anywhere: as on the isolated mountainsides of the Swiss Jura, which provided half the watches of the world by means of an industry based almost wholly on global exportation. Why not anywhere else?

The case is perhaps too special to bear the weight of so general an argument. After all, at the peak of the Swiss triumph, half the world’s watches were produced by approximately 50,000 people. Nevertheless, and especially today, the argument is worth making. There were powerful and, as events showed, decisive historical reasons why the Swiss replaced the British (who had supplied half of an admittedly much smaller world output at the end of the eighteenth century), but in turn fell to the Japanese in the 1970s. Having met all earlier challenges, they failed to meet the challenge of the quartz revolution, i.e., to adapt to clocks that no longer ran by clockwork. But these outcomes, while historically probable—and indeed in retrospect inevitable—were not theoretically determinate. The market and its rationality do not produce optimal results. It cannot disguise failure, or determine success.

Landes has a vast and splendid subject, and on the whole he does it justice. Perhaps the chief weakness in his admirable and satisfying work of historiography is that, especially in the lengthy last part of the book, the cultural history of time and clockmaking disappears behind the more strictly economic history of the industry of time measurement. The men (and women) who made clocks and watches vanish from the scene for long stretches. Simone Oppliger’s moving photographic threnody to the dying past of Swiss watchmaking, Quand nous étions horlogers (“When we were watchmakers”), makes a deserved appearance at the end: but who would guess from this book that the Jura Federation of the First International in its time was the stronghold of Bakuninist opposition to Marx, and who would not wish Landes had explained why this might have been so? The decline of English manufacture is analyzed, but not the notorious radicalism of the London district of Clerkenwell, the last redoubt of its superb craft skills.

Perhaps more significantly, the nonproductive dimension of time drops out of sight. For, after all, the very concept of “leisure” indicates a sharp chronometric distinction between what is done in and outside work time, and this was once historically novel. Landes is superb on the evolution of time coordination and timetables in communication and transportation, though one misses any reference to tide tables and problems of approximation that not only sea transport, but twentieth-century air and road communications have notoriously raised, troubling the classic, almost determinist, certainties of the nineteenth-century railroad and its mail deliveries.

But Landes says nothing about news deadlines, though every public figure today lives by them, or about the unpublic masses whose everyday existence is still punctuated and structured by the fixed times of the TV serial, the ball game, the newscast, as the lives of Western people in the Middle Ages were by church bells. Or about the historically new problems, familiar to every broadcaster, of adjusting creation and presentation to the severest time constraints. These are as relevant to his general theme as his passages on the measurement of sporting speeds. Twentieth-century leisure society, apparently escaping from the tyranny of clockpunching, is essentially a timed society. Again, while the author is excellent—and I would judge largely original—on the use of time and synchronization in war, it is curious that he neglects that great inculcator of the modern sense of time in the young, the school timetable and the school time signal.

Such criticisms are not intended to diminish the scope and stature of a book that moves with equal ease and lucidity through the history of science and technology, economic history, and the comparative study of social systems and their implication for social action—or, more precisely, for scientific and economic development—and that carries us from the Sung dynasty of China by way of the Church fathers and monks, the Arabs and Turks (taking their tribute in elaborate clocks, which they could not service), through courts and craftsmen, astronomers and navigators, English, French, Americans, and Swiss, and back to the heirs of Confucius in Hong Kong who have, for the time being, replaced the Japanese as the leading exporters of watches.

True, time and man’s changing sense of time have recently become fashionable subjects even for nonhorological historians, as witness the work of Jacques Le Goff, Carlo Cipolla, E.P. Thompson, and others whom Landes naturally cites. Much of Revolution in Time will therefore be familiar, in general terms, to readers with an interest in history: for instance, the debates on the roles of “church time”—the Western Church had a strange obsession with strict chronometric regularity of prayer, especially at night—and of medieval merchants’ and employers’ time, in the development of the clock. On church time, Landes speculates plausibly if inconclusively.

Most of us now know about the differences between preindustrial time and “bourgeois” time, and the struggles of craftsmen and laborers during industrialization against the imperatives of regularity and the clock, or, at least, for the control of hourly output or work time. The patron saint of labor was Saint Monday (and with luck, Saint Tuesday). When it came to secular Natural Right the laborer’s demand was for Lafargue’s Right to Idleness. Leisure is the aspiration of those who have too little of it.

Even less sophisticated readers will be at least vaguely aware of the relation between science, navigation, and the development of chronometric precision in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And, in spite of the scarcity of economic history in this field—Landes can think of only six books on the subject before his own—most people’s ideas on the subject are not wholly unrealistic, even if they are confined to the word Switzerland and the memory of the Ingersoll (“the watch that made the dollar famous”).

Nevertheless, Landes’s book is far more than a synthesis of what is known. Only specialists can assess the originality of his contribution to the debate on this subject, and few readers except clock buffs will follow him into the details of “pivoted detents” and “isochronized balance springs.” But all historians can admire his professional mastery and, no less important, the gift of the good historian for noticing things; his command of the historical landscape and his concern with major historical problems unlocks insight. Landes is concerned neither with women’s history (though he notes the long-held belief among watch-makers that women were interested only in approximate time), nor with historical demography. Yet he does not fail to observe the peculiar marital pattern among craft guilds, where young journeymen became masters by marrying widows, whom they survived to marry younger women, who in turn survived them to marry younger men. Landes’s strength as a historical specialist has always been that he is far more than a specialist historian.

Hence his book, while admirably up-to-date, almost contemptuously bypasses current historical fashions without concealing his impatience with some of them, such as the “new economic history.” He writes about history and historical problems as Marx and Weber would have understood them. He is certainly no Marxist, and, in spite of a justified admiration, he is probably not a Weberian. But both Weber and Marx would have understood what he was getting at. Landes has made an important contribution to the history of the rise and fortunes of capitalism, as well as to the comparative dynamics of societies. Indeed, anyone interested in the development, conflicts, and interactions of classes—nobility, bourgeoisie, craftsmen, proletariat—in European history might do well to start here.

What is more, he has treated complex and difficult matters in a style that any educated person can appreciate, without the slightest hint of esotericism, professional display, or condescension. In spite of the occasional, and doubtless necessary, longueurs of technical discussion, the book is a pleasure to read, for the quality of the author’s thinking, for the slightly acid perceptiveness of his observations, and for the often enchanting aptness of his quotations and examples. One wishes there were more books of equal scholarly stature, written by academics, of which one could say as much.

  1. *

    The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 1969).

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