Time – Regulator or Commander? A brief history

19th January 2015
Time is a funny old thing. Sometimes it drags, at others it flies. To some it is a source of security, to others a cause of panic and consternation. It has not always been perceived in the same way by everyone, therefore. Here is my take on how it has changed over the centuries.

Heaven's Time

Look at this beautiful object from Wells Cathedral!
old, early clock on cathedral exterior, Wells
14th century clock with sun and moon represented in the centre above the Earth
It reminds us of an era when time was sacred, tied in with the movements of the heavens. It was a means of regulating our lives rather than commanding them. Same with the famous astronomical clock at Hampton Court ...
double image of old clock face at Hampton Court, astronomical style
The Hampton Court Astronomical Clock - Tudor magnificence.
The seasons and the feast days, and the passage from sunrise to sunset shaped the way people lived at all levels of society. Time was a benign, friendly sort of thing. An ally. And if you worked within it’s gentle mysteries, your life would have a foundation and a structure. It is no coincidence that the grandest timepieces were often installed in church towers or town halls. The bells that sounded the hour or quarters could be heard for miles around. The men of faith were the custodians of time, its measurement and dissemination.

Time for Trade and Money

Then came the Enlightenment, and not only in ideas. This was the 18th Century, and the relentless move from the countryside towards the busy streets of towns and cities was under way - soon to be driven even faster by the Industrial Revolution. Time became more flexible. Watches and domestic clocks were manufactured more easily, and many more people could afford one in their own home. Time became more personal, more 'user-friendly.'
walnut bracket clock with gold and white dia, handle on top
A walnut case bracket clock from around 1730.

Ship ahoy!

With the expansion of trade and commerce around the globe, time also became an essential component of navigation. The search to determine longitude at sea relied on highly accurate timepieces - as did, a little later, the shaping of railway timetables. But look … how beautiful they were still, these pieces. Yes, it was a strict, Newtonian, clockwork kind of universe, but it was conveyed in perfect elegance. Time was still something to be treasured.
marine chronometer for keeping time at sea, 18th century in wooden case
18th Century marine chronometer by John Harrison.

Belle Epoque

The final decades of the 19th and early years of the 20th century, known as the Art Nouveau period in art and design, saw time blossom into a stylish way of expressing symmetry and beauty. Time lent itself to art, and art to time. Perhaps some of the most gorgeous clocks ever made were produced in Europe during this period, as the following examples show.
three examples of art neuveau clock design, curvaceous and elegant
Some examples of the clockmaker's art during the art nouveau period.

Digital Age

With the modern era, the hours and minutes became digital, represented merely by numbers which could also be calibrated in fractions of a second.
digital clock, small, rectangular case
Digital clock. Practical, or just down-right depressing?
All those comforting reminders of the stately passage of the sun across the sky, the orbit of the earth around the sun, all cyclical in form, have all-but vanished. In the busy urban environment, time is a cruel master, relentlessly ticking away, commanding our every move with more and more appointments; slots; things to do. Time has become an ‘app,’ on a smart-phone. And with a 24/7 society, it's just another thing we have to worry about, to exploit or jump to in order to conform.

The Big Comeback - for some

Oddly, all of a sudden fashionable wrist watches have made a bit of a comeback in recent years. They have become status symbols of the rich (or wannabe rich). There has even been a dramatic return to the circular form: the dial. These pieces are often encrusted with jewels, outside as well as within, and interwoven with all kinds of mysterious sub-dials and gauges for additional measurements.
modern wrist watch with lots of dials and controls for time
Umm ... this could be useful (I think).
These are pieces that belong to the rich and 'powerful' - those who find their hours filled with all kinds of important demands. These are the ‘commanders of the universe’ pieces. After all, you never know when you might need a stopwatch to measure someone's performance, or to find out when it's midnight in Vladivostok. Above all, these are timepieces that suggests the wearer is in control over the environment, and that time is his or her servant. The very opposite to how things were at the start.

A long journey. Perhaps we are about to come full circle, though. Perhaps we will soon find ourselves enjoying the hours and days once more, and letting the minutes and seconds look after themselves. But, of course, everything goes in circles, anyway. That's time.
book cover image shows belle epoque era woman in large hat, with clock in background
My novel 'The Hours Before'
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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