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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.