The Publicness of Clock Time

In late medieval and early modern Europe, a central dimension of timekeeping was its ‘publicness’: clock time was essentially, and explicitly, a public concept. Clock time revolved around public devices and public practices, rather than being something that was kept privately. Yet this central public dimension of timekeeping is almost entirely absent from a horological literature overwhelmingly focused on surviving private timepieces. (24)

Glennie, Paul, and Nigel Thrift. Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800, Oxford University Press USA – OSO, 2009.

In a number of posts, I have explored the concept of the public. For instance, I’ve argued that the idea of the public is closely tied to the development of mass media, particularly the invention the newspaper. The above quote connects the idea of the public with the invention (in the 13th century) and improvement of mechanical clocks.

Given its public nature, clock time was also primarily a matter of hearing–an auditory experience–rather than a visual experience of reading a clock. People were alerted to social practices (when to go to work, school, a meeting, church, etc.) usually by the ringing of bells. Not until the 18th century did the visual experience of clock time–reading dials on a clock face–become  common. As Glennie and Thrift write,

By the early eighteenth century, a dial (even if it possessed only one hand) had become integral to how people thought of ‘a clock’. Clock time signalling, in other words, was being generally understood as something visual as well as auditory. And following quite closely behind the proliferation of dials was a sustained increase in sounding of smaller time intervals, such as quarter-striking clocks, that rang every 15 minutes rather than hourly. (41)

There have also been at least two different ways of defining an hour–the unequal hour and the equal hour.

Two different definitions of ‘hour’ circulated over several centuries. First, and the more widespread in medieval Europe, there was the idea that the hour was a fixed proportion of the daylight hours. This definition was relatively easy to keep track of using sundials during the day and somewhat similar devices, sometimes known as nocturnals, during the night traced the apparent rotation of specific stars or constellations around the pole star, Polaris. The term unequal hours highlights the fact that these hours were not of constant length. At any given time of the year, the twelve hours of the day and those of the night, differed in length, except when it happened that day and night were exactly the same length, and sunrise to sunset was the same length of time as sunset to sunrise. Moreover, the total daylight and night-time periods varied with the seasons, so midsummer daytime hours werevery much longer than midwinter daytime hours.The second definition of an hour involved equal hours, defined as onetwenty-fourth of the period between successive noons.. . .Most early medieval time-reckoning, especially that of the church, remained working with ‘unequal hours’, in which the hour was defined as the twelfth part of the day, or night. Thus at any given time of year day-time and night-time hours were of unequal lengths. The twelve hours of the day between sunrise and sunset were longer than the twelve night hours in the summer, and shorter in the winter. Only when the day and night were each exactly twelve hours long would the length of the daytime hours and the night-time hours be equal, and equivalent to the ‘equal hour’.³ As we have already pointed out, it might well be argued that the adoption of equal hour time-reckoning (which had been confined to specialist groups such as astronomers), rather than reckoning in the unequal hours indicated by the sun, was more significant a change in medieval European timekeeping than any specific advances in timekeeping technology.

Glennie Paul and Nigel Thrift, p. 25, 40

As keeping time by equal hours gradually took over,

Clocks shifted from being purely proxies or intermediaries for what a sundial would show, were it not cloudy, to being themselves the source of times to which causal powers could be ascribed.

Glennie Paul and Nigel Thrift, p. 26

We typically think of time as a discipling factor or technology; the clock, in this view, disciplines our lives in oppressive ways. But this issue is complex; it’s not just about the synchronization of labor necessary for factor work. Glennie and Thrift discuss time discipline in terms of three dimensions: standardization, regularity, and coordination.

Three dimensions seem particularly important, namely standardization, regularity and coordination. By standardization we mean the degree to which people’s’ time-space paths are disciplined to be the same as one another’s. By regularity we mean the degree to which peoples’ time-space paths involve repetitive routine. By coordination we mean the degree to which people’s’ time-space paths are disciplined to smoothly connect with one another’s. (45)

These three dimensions operate in various ways. For some kinds of social practices, one or two of the dimensions might be relevant but not all three. Glennie and Thrift view clock time in terms of social practices, rather than simply as a discipling technology.


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