About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks by David Rooney

One sleepy Thursday afternoon in February 1894, two astronomers at Greenwich Park’s Royal Observatory were working late when they heard a “sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air”. They ran outside to find smoke rising on the path below. As they came closer, they saw a man kneeling by the railings, his head bowed. Only when they lifted him upright did they realize he was horribly injured, his left hand blown clean off, his intestines smeared over the path. He died half an hour later, without saying a word.

The man’s name was Martial Bourdin. A French anarchist, he had been carrying a homemade chemical bomb, intended for the observatory. Only moments from his target, he must have tripped and fallen, triggering the bomb beneath him. But why did he do it? And why the observatory?

The answers, explains David Rooney, formerly Greenwich’s curator of timekeeping, are easy to guess. Bourdin’s target was almost certainly a large white clock, positioned close to the line that marks Greenwich’s prime meridian. Ten years earlier Western governments had agreed that “all the people of Earth should march to the beat of one clock”. This was the clock: a symbol of order and government, capitalism and modernity, the “powerful, living embodiment of all that anarchists like Bourdin despised”.

The clock: a symbol of order and government, capitalism and modernity.

What are clocks, really? That question hangs over Rooney’s book and as his 12 short chapters whizz past the answer becomes obvious. “Clocks,” he says, “are us.” They are kings and emperors, parents and teachers, mill owners and factory managers, maritime navigators and colonial officials.

In particular, he thinks clocks have always represented political power, which is why he kicks off his narrative in 263 BC, with the Roman capture of a Carthaginian sundial at the start of the First Punic War. Mounted on a column in the Forum, the sundial showed that “Rome was on top” and the crowds cheered with joy.

The sheen soon wore off, though. Within a few years Roman writers were complaining that the city was full of sundials, imposing temporal order where once there had been freedom. One writer even urged his readers to take up crowbars and topple the “hateful” devices from their columns. It was too late, though. Sundials — and clocks — had arrived to stay.

It’s to Rooney’s credit that although he clearly knows a colossal amount about clocks, he wears his learning very lightly. A chapter on clocks and faith, for example, begins with a lovely vignette of an elaborate water-driven castle clock designed by the pioneering scientist Ismail al-Jazari in Diyar Bakr in 1206.

For Muslims and Christians alike, Rooney points out, time, and therefore clocks, was associated with divine order. Then we are on to the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, who famously wrote that the universe was “like a rare clock”, so “skilfully contrived” that its designer could set it running and then step back to watch the little figures doing their thing. To watch-wearing English Protestants, says Rooney, keeping time carried enormous importance: as one theologian put it, by wasting time “you are guilty of robbing God himself”.

Ancient Roman writers complained that the city was full of sundials, imposing temporal order where once there had been freedom.

The obvious criticism of Rooney’s book is that it is just too short. His discussion of clocks and faith, for example, is barely 20 pages long, whisking us from medieval Mesopotamia and Cromwellian England to Mecca’s colossal new Royal Clock Tower without a pause for breath. A later chapter, “Markets,” opens with the clock at the world’s first stock exchange in Amsterdam, tears through a quick history of clocks and high finance, and ends with the atomic clocks used for modern transactions, so accurate they can time-stamp a million times a second. The details are fascinating, but it is disconcerting to travel centuries in just a few sentences.

Yet underlying this breakneck dash is a serious thesis. Clocks, Rooney says, are really instruments of control. He gives the example of the time ball installed by the British at the Cape of Good Hope observatory in 1833, a tool to allow passing mariners to set their instruments. They were not doing it out of charity: this was a crucial point in the maritime network holding Britain’s empire together.

Tellingly, the observatory depended on slave labor: when work on it began, the builders advertised for “thirty strong Slave Boys by the month” to do the heavy lifting. And by the early 20th century Britain had constructed a web of some 200 coastal time signals around the world, with balls, discs, guns and flags in “India, Singapore, Africa, Australasia, Canada, Malta, Gibraltar, Mauritius and the West Indies” — each a physical reminder of Western colonial hegemony.

They are kings and emperors, parents and teachers, maritime navigators and colonial officials. “Clocks are us.”

Rooney ends by taking us into the far future, in the year 6970 in what was once Osaka. Here, at the beginning of 1971, the engineers of Matsushita and Seiko buried a plutonium timekeeper, designed to last for 50 centuries. Inside the capsule the president of Matsushita wrote a note to his successors, hoping that “something of our civilization will survive the ravages of time”.

Rooney is less sanguine, shuddering at the thought of the “clocks orbiting Earth on global navigation satellites operated by the American, Chinese and Russian militaries”, and warning that unless we all try to “leave the world a little better than when we came into it”, we are doomed to extinction.

This, though, strikes me as an unnecessarily pious, even Bourdinish note on which to end. After all, clocks aren’t only instruments of control, and to most of us they don’t really represent power and oppression. They are miracles of care and craftsmanship, testament to the ingenuity and imagination of the human spirit. Clocks are us, as Rooney argues. But surely we’re not all bad, are we?

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and the author of numerous books, including Who Dares Wins, Never Had It So Good, and The Great British Dream Factory