Inventing Time

How our lives came to be run by the clock

Adam M Wakeling

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Clock, from Fklickr, Creative Commons Licence

“The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”

— Lewis Mumford, Technology Historian

InIn 1947, 101-year-old Confederate veteran Julius Howell gave an interview to the U.S. Library of Congress on his experiences in the American Civil War. It is a great primary source overall, but I want to focus on one off-hand comment Howell makes. While talking about marching around Petersburg, he says an aside that “we never counted distances or times in those days.” When Howell was growing up in rural Virginia in the 1850s, many people would neither have known nor cared what the exact time was.

To those of us living western lifestyles today, this is difficult to imagine. I have a clock beside my bed which is often the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I see before I go to sleep. I wear a watch on my wrist, have a clock in my car, carry a mobile phone which tells me the time, and can glance at the bottom corner of the computer screen to see the time as I type this sentence. I need to know the time to catch a train, go shopping when the stores are open, go to work, and make appointments. My leisure activities are time-bound as well, from meeting my friends to going to the movies or watching TV at home. Like most people, I often make the decision when to eat meals or go to bed based on what time it is. And if I don’t know the time, I feel a sense of unease.

Modern society could not function without clocks. More than that, timepieces have become cultural symbols. Big Ben is recognised worldwide as an icon of London. Luxury watches are a status symbol. Men were traditionally given gold pocket-watches when they retired. If something runs smoothly, we compare it to clockwork.

For most of human history, though, time was entirely abstract. From the invention of agriculture until the Industrial Revolution, nine-tenths of the population worked on the land. They rose with the sun and went outside to work when there was daylight and the weather was good. Almost everyone lived where they worked, and the concept of a commute was unknown. The most important communal gatherings were religious. Each…

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Adam M Wakeling

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.