Harvard historian Landes' treatise on clocks will rank high with those who delight in discovering the new or curious. True,...


REVOLUTION IN TIME: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World

Harvard historian Landes' treatise on clocks will rank high with those who delight in discovering the new or curious. True, the text goes on at length, sometimes gets a bit technical, and sometimes repeats itself; but it is sustained overall by a charming drollery, as well as meticulous scholarship. If Landes takes time to make points, he is only underscoring his theme: Western society now lives with the notion of time gained and time lost; of the need to parcel time into precise little packages to be spent or saved--for oneself or in social obligations. The water clocks of antiquity, and the calendrical devices of early dynastic China, would not do for the urbanizing, industrializing societies of pre-Renaissance Europe. Textile workers marked their daily toil by the sounds of belltowers and cathedral clocks--public devices that were the first mechanical contrivances to count the hours and space them evenly over the day (a process that enforced the learning of arithmetic and calculation). At first, the Church was the prime mover in the development of clocks: prayers had to be said, and monks alerted, to the canonical hours. (""Frere Jacques"" is really about the fear of missing matins.) Eventually time-consciousness became internalized and affected everyone. Landes notes the shift of urban centers and industry from Mediterranean and Catholic realms to German and Protestant. (Pity Max Weber didn't assume a chronometric point of view, remarks Landes; it fits so well with Protestantism and the rise of capitalism.) Running through this compendium of invention and social history are choice anecdotes, poems, literary references, and commercial developments. Plus lots of minor astonishments. Why clockmakers in Switzerland? Because Louis XIV reversed the Edict of Nantes in 1685, driving out 200,000 Protestants, among whom were a disproportionately high number of clockmakers who went to nearby Switzerland. Later sections deal with endeavors to make better timepieces down to the present. In the last chapter, Landes details the quartz revolution--with telling business analyses of what happened to the Swiss, the rise of Timex, the advent of tuning-fork and then vibrating quartz crystal watches. A fine bit of scholarship, revealing aspects of Western sensibility and economic progress from an unusual standpoint.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983