Max Weber and Lewis Mumford, as perpetrators of particular errors, are cited early on. They and others "fail to distinguish between alarm devices, mechanical clocks, and striking clocks." 1 and credit the church, particularly the Benedictines, with too much influence over the spread of a mechanically ordered life. Rossum suggests that the Benedictines were focused on the order of chants, not on the precise time for the order. "In the interest of communal performance, the handling of the rhythm of the day was elastic." (37) As well, Rossum notes that the system of hour keeping varied greatly from region to region. Regions differed as to when the day started -- at midnight or at dawn -- to the divisions of the days -- systems around 12 and around 100 were in practice and as to the actual length of seconds and minutes.
The important mechanical inventions in moving from a water or candle clock -- all known since antiquity -- to the was the escapement and other delaying and motion regulating devices, such as the much later spring. Rossum suggests that the innovations were northern Italian, but concedes that the evidence is simply too scanty and the too widespread to pinpoint the inventors of some of the key parts of the clock. However, once regulating weights and bars were incorporated into the clock, miniaturization was not far behind, and portable clocks were in existence in the early 1400s. Mechanics and inventors were drawn to clocks from many disciplines. Monks, goldsmiths, armorers and architects: anyone who could get a town's commission and perform successfully was likely to continue in the craft.
Cities and princes (not merchants) began to commission striking clocks as early as 1307. "The overall contribution that territorial lords great and small made to the diffusion of public clocks in the cities of Europe was undoubtedly impressive. Still, even in regions where such activities are very densely documented they were not the rule. In the vast majority of cases we must assume that the impetus for the acquisition of public clocks came from the communities themselves." (140) Intense town rivalry accounts for the rapid spread of clock towers. Rossum detects no strongly discernible pattern in the spread of clocks, except to say that the northern Italians appeared to fall behind other regions, and that the Turks and Islamic countries contributed important texts and models for automata, while resisting the public clock as a site of public rebellion and an undermining of the authority of the muezzin.
Rossum believes it is the striking clock that was the truly radical innovation for the Middle Ages. The cacophony of bells, used for signals, for power struggles and for the ordering of the day's prayers, was replaced by a simpler signal system which simply told what time of day it was, and thus indicated the action to be performed. What stands out in Rossum's account is not the invention of the wheeled clock itself, but the speed with which it was adopted, hailed as the thing desired, and become inextricably incorporated into daily life. (Consider that a punishment for a town was removing its bells and clock.) Not until the 1900s, when post and transportation made the spread of one world time possible, did the reign of the regional clock begin to crumble.
1 Gerhard Dohrm-van Rossum. History of the Hour. Trans.
Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.