HISTORY OF THE HOUR: Clocks and Modem TemporaI Orders.

HISTORY OF THE HOUR: Clocks and Modem TemporaI Orders.

Steven Lagerfeld

By Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossurn. Trans. by Thomas Dunlap. Univ. of Chicago Press. 451 pp. $29.95.

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There is nothing more distinctively modern than the ordering of all existence by days, hours, minutes, seconds, and, it sometimes seems, nanoseconds. How did time become the tyrant of modern life? The answer is not as obvious as it might appear. After all, time (or more accurately its measurement) is as old as the Babylonians, who invented the sundial and the 24-hour day. Yet the Babylonians didn’t live by the clock.

Modern time began with the invention of the mechanical clock during the 13th century. Nowadays, scholars eager to find Eurocentrism lurking under every bed suggest that medieval Europeans borrowed the technology from the Chinese or Muslims. This hypothesis gets little more than a cold stare from Dohrn-van Rossum, a historian at Germany’s University of Bielefeld. At great length, he shows that while much of the mechanical clock’s history remains obscure, many different inventors in scattered European towns and cities had a hand in its development.

Dohrn-van Rossum observes that what really brought time to the public realm was the use—beginning in Orvieto and other northern Italian towns early in the 14th century—of public clocks capable of striking the hours. By the early 15th century, he notes, "life in [Europe’s] cities was equated with life by the clock.’’ But he attacks the scholarly consensus that urban merchants and traders who demanded standardized forms of time were chiefly responsible for this change. He shows that churchmen—usually seen as foot-draggers—gladly advanced the cause of time and that local aristocrats in towns and cities across Europe regarded public clocks as civic status symbols and rushed to install them. Nor was standardized time an instrument solely of workers’ oppression, Dohrn-van Rossum argues. As early as the 15th century, workmen turned it to their own advantage, using the clock to win hourly wages and limited working hours.

Despite prose charitably described—even allowing for the vagaries of translation—as uninviting, Dohrn-van Rossum paints a highly nuanced picture of time’s conquest of modern life. The old idea that time consciousness was imposed by a rising bourgeoisie intent upon reordering and rationalizing the world no longer seems solid. Dohrn-van Rossum paints a more complex (and untidy) picture of scattered and spontaneous generation; it makes time seem less our tyrant than our duly elected monarch.


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