By the "rarest of coincidences," David Landes discovered that the "history of time measurement and its contribution...to what we call modern civilization," had been left a vast tract of unstudied historical ground. Revolution in Time, then, could be filled with original research, offering a map through the wilds of old archives and manuscripts. It is not. It is, however, readable and entertaining.
The book is divided into three parts. First he offers" a study in cultural history (why was the mechanical clock invented in Europe?)."(xv) Since other areas of the world were more advanced technologically, what cultural need in Europe suggested the clock? Second, the book addresses "the history of science and technology (how did we get from crude, approximate timekeepers to instruments of high precision?)." (xv) In short, clocks --time -- got tangled up with space, in the search for an accurate way to find longitude. Finally, Landes surveys "social and economic history (who made these instruments? how? who used them? why?)" (xv) Clocks are entirely mobile in both production and sales, requiring only ingenuity and design, so they make an interesting study in entrepreneurship.
Why Europe? The Chinese were building clocks -- automata, and mirrors of the heavens -- as early as 1086. However, their approach was expensive, monumental, and exclusive. When the designer died, so did the clock. The clock supported a reign and a monarch, rather than announcing business or work times. Consequently, Landes disagrees with Needham's argument that the Chinese inspired the West in clockmaking. The Chinese went no further than building monument clocks because society was agrarian, and therefore not organized around units of time smaller than a day. Landes suggests that Western monasteries, by contrast, generated a sense of anxiety about time, and a need to know the time in units smaller than a day. No historian has been able to pinpoint the place or exact inspiration, but the growing organization of production and trade and the rise of towns are also seen as crucial. Sometime in the 1320s, the important component parts appear together as a clock: a motivating force (weights), a gear train, and an oscillatory device (verge and foliot). As soon as clocks appear, both table clocks and big cathedral clocks are built and not more than a hundred years later, very small clocks are being built. An abstract mediator and judge between lord and people, between employer and worker, was accepted, welcomed, used in the West as it was not in the East.
Why did Westerners pursue the ability to measure smaller and smaller units of time? There were three groups with an interest in the problem: owners and workers, astronomers, and sailors. The latter had the biggest problem. A worker who didn't have a clock might fail to show up on time, or be cheated out of 15 minutes at lunch, and astronomers without finely graded instruments might not be able to predict an eclipse accurately, but sailors who couldn't find their location just might not get home. Solving the problem of longitude ensured safety and superiority in trade; hence, England and France both sponsored contests with large monetary prizes to urge a solution. (John Harrison, an unlikely and somewhat uncongenial English craftsman, solved the problem.) In fact, the instruments produced were at last so good that the market shrank -- planned obsolescence still lay in the future.
In part three Landes turns to the production of clocks, saying "I can think of no industry that so well illustrates the stages of manufacture; from ad hoc, itinerant teams of craftsmen to the factory, from complete versatility to utmost specialization and division of labor, from one-of-a-kind works of art to uniform assemblages of interchangeable parts." (190) Landes glosses several rather interesting medieval records on clock building, emphasizing the expense and difficulties of cathedral clocks. ("He who built a clock gave a hostage to fortune." 200) He relates the amusing tale of Georg Roll (a craftsman/salesman on the order of the German lathe-maker in Klemm) who made the most of building, quarreling, selling and hiring in his short 46 years. Perhaps in the service of collectors (he himself is one) he reviews the work and practice of great craftsmen such as Tompion, Quare, Graham, Ellicott, Mudge and Le Roy. Finally, he turns to the work of Swiss craftsmen, who supplanted the British just as the railroads came into being, and were in their turn supplanted by the Japanese. Quite simply, no sunk costs or specialized parts prevented (or prevents) watches from being produced anywhere in the world, especially after the quartz revolution. On this point, Landes notes the strugges of the Swiss to produce a cheap mechanical watch: " This is a universal characteristic of of once-dominant technologies: they make some of their greatest improvements under the sentence of obsolescence; the finest days of the sailing ship came after the advent of steam." (351) Good design and economically produced parts can form the foundation of a new business anywhere.
What is Landes's thesis? The tri-part structure of the work makes it
hard to say what, if anything, is being argued. Certainly Landes
sees the clock as particularly European, and based on needs arising from
monasteries and trade. Also, he sees precision, linked to longitude,
as a problem engaging the best minds for the better part of a century.
The third part is an overview of great craftsmasters and places of production.
He traces the development of an industry under pressure, pressure to be
cheap and ubiquitous.