Clocks and Watches

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CLOCKS AND WATCHES. Historians have long pondered why the European world has so highly valued consciousness of time. Economic historian David Landes argues that time consciousness was a major "stimulus to the individualism that was an ever more salient aspect of Western civilization." His argument fits well with Max Weber's contention that in Protestant lands a new work ethic developed that contributed significantly to the rise of a new economic order. Unquestionably, the new work ethic included a heightened sense of the importance of time; this is likely the origin of the familiar saying "time is money." Lewis Mumford put forth the more daring claim that in the modern industrial world, the clock made a more fundamental change than the steam engine. Indeed, the profusion of clocks and watches in the early modern world helped to reinforce a growing social consciousness of time, a consciousness we today take for granted. Clocks and watches prod us to use our time efficiently and are clearly instruments of organization and social control. They tell us when to get out of bed and when to go to work. It was in the urban early modern world that mechanical timekeepers came to replace the sun, the timekeeper of the rural, medieval world. Also in the early modern period, punctuality, along with regularity, temperance, reliability, restraint, and industriousness, was considered a great virtue and an emblem of a disciplined life. Hence, it is not surprising that many of the most talented men of early modern Europe worked to design and perfect clocks and watches.

Mechanical timekeepers were not an invention of the early modern European world, but the era did witness considerable advances in their design, accuracy, and diffusion of ownership. In this period craftsmen, jewelers, carpenters, mathematicians, metalsmiths, artists, and scientists all contributed to the refinement of these devices that dated from the crude tower clocks of the Middle Ages, which were probably invented in England around 1300. In the early modern era more elaborate, more beautiful, more accurate, sturdier, and miniaturized versions of clocks appeared. Far more than our timepieces today, early modern clocks and watches were items of luxury and affirmed the power and prestige of their owners. Gradually in this period clocks moved beyond ownership of prosperous towns and powerful princes to become domestic items available to a wider range of middle-class merchants and gentry. The advantages of mechanical timekeepers over sundials and water clocks were so great that the latter form almost vanished from Europe. Sundials, however, remained in use in Europe long after the clock had been improvedwell into the eighteenth century.


Early tower clocks were subject to vagaries of cold and rainy weather. They were generally made of iron and hence were so big and heavy they could not be put in a house. As the clocksmiths began to use lighter metalsincluding brass, silver, and steelsmaller scaled clocks became possible. Two technological designs, the spring coil and the fusee, made even smaller scales possible. Thus the watch developed: a timepiece to be worn on the human body, intended to serve as both timekeeper and ornament. Although spring coils (developed around 1400) allowed for a lighter weight clock, the impetus they relayed to the gears and wheels decreased as the clock gradually unwound. Two other devices, the fusee wheel (an intermediary between the main-spring and the wheel train, conical in shape) and the stackfreed helped to equalize the force on the mechanism of the coiled spring as it was unwinding.

Before 1650, most clocks and watches were notoriously inaccurate, but by the mid-seventeenth century, scientists began to apply their talents to making the instruments more precise. Astronomers such as Galileo Galilei (15641642) and Ismael Bouillaud (16051694), the microscopist Robert Hooke (16351703), and the mathematician Christiaan Huygens (16291695) made theoretical breakthroughs on the design of clocks. A major development was the pendulum clock, which operated by a pendulum controlled by gravity. Like the coiled spring, the back-and-forth motion of the pendulum is performed in theoretically equal periods of time. The invention of the pendulum and its application to clocks has a curious history, not all of it known. Leonardo da Vinci (14521519) and Galileo were both intrigued by the pendulum. Galileo's son Vicenzio made a drawing of a mechanism to maintain a pendulum in motion and may have built a model in 1649. But the oldest surviving pendulum clock was made in 1657 at The Hague by Salomon Coster, in response to the design of a fellow Dutchman, Christiaan Huygens, who published a definitive work on the theory of the pendulum. Within two years clock makers in Paris and London had read the Huygens treatise and were producing their own pendulum clocks. Soon afterward a flurry of technological designs improved the accuracy of the pendulum clock. Pinwheel escapements, anchor escapements, regulation of the length of the pendulum, the balance spring, and dead-beat escapements followed quickly.

A second challenge for the greater precision of timekeeping instruments came from a desire to discover an accurate measurement of longitude at sea. When the British Parliament announced an irresistibly large cash prize, skilled clock makers, as well as mathematicians and scientists, invested considerable effort and energy to finding a solution. The prize would ultimately go to a clock maker, John Harrison.


Despite its shortcomings, the mechanical clock in the early modern era was regarded as a triumph of human genius and invention. Clock makers had arranged its parts in a strict spatial and logical order. Causal connections linked the components and careful design had preceded each complex or simple operation. Hence for many Europeans living in a world of political, religious, and economic instability, the clock exemplified order, harmony, and rationality in the cosmos. Many came to regard the relationship between God and creation as analogous to that between the clock maker and the clock; others applied the analogy of the clock to the state where an absolute monarch presided and directed the parts of the machinery with order, rationality, and predictability. Hence, clocks frequently surfaced in figures of speech and metaphors in political, scientific, and religious writings. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (15711630), the chemist Robert Boyle (16271691), the poet John Donne (15721631), the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (15881679), and absolutist King Frederick II of Prussia (ruled 17401786) all invoked the clockwork metaphor. Hence the diffusion of clocks helped thinkers of the early modern period to conceptualize and shape the social value of harmonious political and religious obedience.


Between 1550 and 1650 the unquestioned center of clock and watch manufacture was in Germany, specifically in the towns of Augsburg and Nuremburg. Long known for their self-governing craft guilds and high standards of metalwork, German towns enjoyed princely patronage and general prosperity. With the economic decline consequent to the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War (16181648), leadership in clock making moved to France and England, notably to Paris and London, where scientists joined the efforts to improve accuracy and to promote technological improvements. By the eighteenth century, Geneva had enjoyed an influx of Huguenot craftsmen and became an important center of watch production.


Before 1650 many clocks were designed to illustrate astronomical information in addition to time. One historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, has argued that the mechanical clock originated from artistic attempts to imitate with mechanical devices the motions of the heavenly bodies, which also tell time. One such famous clock, the original 1574 astronomical clock of the Strasbourg cathedral was fitted with a celestial globe, an astrolabe, and other clock-driven mechanisms to represent the heavenly motions. Other clocks served as impressive works of art and craftsmanship. Some German princes owned elaborate automaton clocks that played music and presented sculptured figures such as soldiers or religious disciples who appeared from behind screens as the clock struck the hour. Goldsmiths and artisans of the highest quality produced such marvels.

The appearance of the pendulum clock strongly changed both the design and appearance of clocks. In general, the function of the clock became more exclusively that of timekeeping. Clock dials became more readable and less cluttered with extraneous information and sculpture. The 29-inch pendulum promoted by Hooke influenced the long case design (popularly referred to today as the grandfather clock design), although pendulum clocks were built as shelf or table clocks as well. The wooden case was originally designed to protect the movement and weights of the timekeeper from extraneous jolts or disturbances. But this also allowed the cabinetmaker to design a case as elaborate and as ornamented as any piece of furniture. Polished mahogany, brass finials, and painted figures of rocking ships or floral motifs abounded in the eighteenth century. In France decorative clocks produced during the reign of Louis XV (ruled 17151774) were elaborate and often rivaled contemporary furniture in craftsmanship. Clocks commonly outlasted furniture since they were more prized as domestic ornaments.

A series of technical improvements, notably the freestanding going barrel developed by the French watchmaker Jean Antoine Lepine, allowed watches to be made considerably thinner. Further improvements introduced by Abraham Louis Breguet toward the end of the eighteenth century heightened the accuracy of the timekeeping and even allowed the owner to observe the state of winding and the temperature. Watches remained primarily pocket watches (with ladies' models worn at the neck or more rarely on the fingers in rings as ornaments) and did not move to the wrist until after the early modern era.


Early clocks were heavy and expensive and were owned either by wealthy monasteries or cathedrals, such as the earliest surviving one at Salisbury Cathedral in England. Many indicated time not by dials, but by striking bells. (The Modern English word "clock" comes from the Middle English clokke, 'bell'). In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries clocks were often made for public use and became important symbols of the towns that had commissioned them as public amenities. They regulated the opening and close of markets and had many economic and social functions in the municipality. As it became technologically feasible to build smaller clocks, princely courts became the major centers of patronage of clock makers. For example, Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191558) and all later Habsburgs employed the services of clock makers at their courts. The most well-known of these was Jost Burgi (15521632), who made uncommonly complicated and precise clocks at the courts of Landgrave Wilhelm IV at Kassel (17871867) and at the court of Rudolf II at Prague. Burgi produced clocks of remarkable regularity, introduced technical innovations, including the cross-beat escapement and remontoire, and he corresponded extensively with scientists and mathematicians of his day.

Clocks commonly appear in the portraits of German princes and often refer to the authoritarian order, a virtue shared by a well-governed state, a wise prince, and a well-crafted clock. In a society founded on princely patronage, early modern monarchs often presented clocks as gifts intended to impress the recipient with the scientific expertise and mechanical ingenuity of the princely donor. In 1616 the Jesuit missionary Nicholas Trigault took mechanical clocks as well as scientific instruments to China to aid the Jesuit mission in earning the good will of Chinese dignitaries. Similarly, the Habsburgs repeatedly presented mechanical clocks, as well as gold, jewels, and precious textiles, to the Ottoman Porte in Constantinople as part of the annual tribute exacted of them for keeping Hungary. Thus, the presentation of clocks solidified political alliances and symbolized great esteem on the part of the donor or patron.

As clocks became more common, more portable, and less expensive, ownership expanded outside the princely court or the flourishing city. Gradually, well-to-do private citizens could buy clocks and watches; in Tristam Shandy, novelist Laurence Sterne has a large house clock appear as part of the domestic furniture of a country merchant whose regular monthly offices as a dutiful head of household included winding the clock and having sexual relations with his wife. By the eighteenth century the clockwork metaphor could be mocked as well as taken seriously. In any event, it was a metaphor with which a wide readership had become quite familiar.

See also Chronometer ; Galileo Galilei ; Huygens Family ; Scientific Instruments ; Time, Measurement of .


Bedini, Silvio. The Pulse of Time: Galileo Galilei, the Determination of Longitude, and the Pendulum Clock. Florence, 1991.

Edwardes, Ernest L. The Story of the Pendulum Clock. Altrincham, 1977.

Landes, David. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Maurice, Klaus, and Otto Mayr, eds. The Clockwork Universe, German Clocks and Automata, 15501650. New York, 1980.

Milham, Willis. Time and Timekeepers. New York, 1923.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York, 1934.

Price, Derek de Solla. "Clockwork before the Clock and Timekeepers before Timekeeping." Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors 18 (1976): 399416.

Martha Baldwin