Crosby (1997). Time. (The Measure of Reality.)

Crosby, A. W. (1997). Time. In The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600 (pp. 75–93). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

“It is not odd that medieval Western Europeans took in measuring time their first giant step forward in practical metrology. Nor is it odd that they did so in measuring hours, rather than in calendar reform. Hours were not bounded by natural event, but were arbitrary durations and susceptible to arbitrary definition. Days, in contrast, had such boundaries in darkness and light, and, furthermore, calendars were artifacts of millennia of civilization, stiff with encrustations of custom and sanctity.” (p 76)

“…hours were of central significance to city dwellers, whom buying and selling had already initiated into the vogue of quantification.” (p 76)

“After 1300 there is no doubt that the mechanical clock was a reality, because there was a great increase in the number of references to time-measuring machines.12” (p 79)

“In 1335 Galvano della Fiamma. described a ‘wonderful clock’ in Milan in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin (now the San Gottarde) with a hammer that struck twenty-four hours in the day and night: … Clocks had only bells — no faces or hands yet — but already Western Europe had entered the age of quantified time …” (p 80)

“Solving the problem becomes possible when one stops thinking of time as a smooth continuum and starts thinking of it as a succession of quanta.” (p 80)

“… the escapement. This ‘simple’ oscillating device regularly interrupts, in thousands upon thousands of repetitions a day, the descent of the dock’s weight, ensuring that its energy is expended evenly.16 The escapement did nothing to solve the mysteries of time, but it did domesticate it.” (p 81)

“Westerners were not the first to have mechanical clocks. The Chinese had several giant ones as early as the tenth century. Indeed, it is conceivable that news of these spurred the invention of the West’s first docks.17 Whatever may be the truth of that, it is unquestionable that the West was unique in its enthusiasm for clocks …” (p 81)

“… equal hours began to displace unequal hours in general usage as early as 1330 in Germany and about 1370 in England.” (p 82)

“The clock provided Westerners with a new way of imagining — of meta-imagining. Lucretius, the Roman poet, had created the image of the _machina mundi_, ‘the world machine,’ back in the first century A.D. and others had now and again used it since, but the firmly specific ‘clockwork universe,’ which many would say has been the dominant metaphor of Western civilization, did not appear until the fourteenth century.” (p 83)

“For generations the town clock was the one complicated machine that hundreds of thousands saw every day, heard over and over again every day and night. It taught them that invisible, inaudible, seamless time was composed of quanta. It, like money, taught them quantification.” (p 85)

“‘… one unalterable speed is the course of life. There is no going back or taking pause. We move forward through all tempest and whatever wind. Whether the course be easy or difficult, short or long, through all there is one constant velocity.’50” (p 93)

“In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton would define it thus: ‘Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.’51” (p 93)

Selected References

  • 12. J. D. North, “Monasticism and the First Mechanical Clocks,” in The Study of Time: Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Society for the Study of Time, eds. J. T. Fraser and N. Lawrence (New York: Springer, 1975), 2: 384-5.
  • 16. Landes, Revolution in Time, 6-11.
  • 17. Joseph Needham, Wang Ling, and Derek J. de Solla Price, Heavenly Clockwork: The Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China (Cambridge University Press, 1960), 55-6; Landes, Revolution in Time. 17-24. These Chinese devices might be more accurately called astronomical machines rather than clocks, as some would say about the first European clocks, too.
  • 50. Ricardo J. Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 108.
  • 51. lsaac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, trans. Andrew Motte and Florian Cajori (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934), 6.
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