Posted on Sun 19 January 2014

Revolution in Time

What keeps one coming back to the same book for years or even decades?

Revolution in Time by craiglea123, on Flickr

I can think of two books I’ve read and re-read for years; Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Revolution in Time by David S. Landes. It’s this second book I’ve been thinking about again after reading a blog post about early mechanical clocks

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, daing, dong. Ding, daing, dong.


I first stumbled across Revolution in Time around 1985 while exploring the nether regions of the Dundee University library. I found the opening of the book fascinating as it explained the need to measure time more precisely in late medieval Europe. Unlike Islam or Judaism, the Roman branch of Christianity (particularly the Benedictine rule) held offices at fixed times of day rather than during bands of time around sunrise, noon and sunset that can be assessed without a timekeeper. The monastic day or (Horarium) revolved around the eight canonical hours that would begin at midnight with the service of Matins followed by the morning office of Lauds at 3:00am.

While most of Europe in the middle ages lived an agrarian lifestyle regulated by the natural day, the Religious were subject to fixed times in each day and during the long dark winter nights. Given those conditions one can understand the anxiety about Brother John sleeping-in and not ringing the matins bell. They needed a reliable way to divide up the day.

It’s an interesting diversion to reflect on the fact that methods of telling the time elsewhere in the world don’t work well in Northern Europe. Water (clocks) freezes and sundials work best when one can be more confident of clear skies.

Revolution in Time tells a number of separate, but related, stories:

  • The magnificent dead-end that was timekeeping in ancient China.
  • The birth of mechanical timekeeping in medieval Europe.
  • The race to fing the longitude and the story of John Harrison’s clocks.
  • The history of the clock and watchmaking industry — for me, the least interesting part of the book.

I have travelled nearly 30 years with this book and will keep coming back to it because there is so much material to take in and Landes is a good story teller. Since first reading the book I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the earliest clocks in Europe; the astronomical clock in Exeter CathedraL and the turret clock at Cotehele. It was fascinating to see that these are not precisely-engineered creations but machines that have run for 500 or 600 years.

This is not just the story of instruments to measure time and break up the day into regular chunks. It’s the story that led to the industrial revolution and the modern world.

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