Time, Gentlemen, Please

David Cannadine

  • The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern
    Weidenfeld, 372 pp, £16.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 297 78341 6
  • Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World by David Landes
    Harvard, 482 pp, £17.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 674 76800 0

As someone once said, although we do not know exactly when, time is of the essence. It can be given or taken, saved or spent, borrowed or beaten, kept or killed. There are old timers and egg timers, time bombs and time tables, time signals and time machines. There is half time and full time, short time and over time, standard time and local time, the best of times and the worst of times. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to break down and a time to build up, a time to reap and a time to sow. There is the time of your life and time out of mind; there is peace in our time and there are times of troubles; there is no time like the present and there are times that try men’s souls. Time cures all things yet it corrodes all things; it flies never to return but creeps along with leaden feet; it is on our side although it waits for no man. As Gollum explained to Bilbo in one of the few plausible pages of The Hobbit, there is a lot of it about:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

But if time is of the essence, what is the essence of time? ‘I know what time is,’ St Augustine said, ‘but if someone asks me, I cannot tell him.’ Physicists and philosophers have much the same problem: when pressed for time, they have no easy answer. Nor do historians. But they do have a powerful sense, if not of its nature, at least of its passing. Whether narrative or analysis, a multi-volume epic or a terse and trenchant article, all works of history implicitly begin with the words ‘once upon a time’. For historians, any particular event, person, work of art or scientific discovery, is time bound and time specific. In that sense, as Goethe explained, historians serve ‘the clock whose hands are forever stopped’. But since history is also a story, an unfolding process, one damned thing after another, it is equally important to get these damned things in the correct order, to know which came first in the womb of time, the chicken or the egg. The description, analysis and explanation of events, in time and over time, is the historian’s main task, and the ability to use the time dimension skilfully and perceptively distinguishes the good historian from the bad. Pace H.G. Wells and Dr Who, it is historians who are the first and foremost time travellers: for them, ‘Time, gentlemen, please’ is not so much a publican’s exhortation as a scholarly injunction.

Yet although history is largely a matter of time, the history of time itself has been remarkably little studied. The concept of time may be hard to grasp, but the measurement and perception of it have been fundamental to all civilisations, and especially to Western Europe, the most time-conscious society of all time. Along with the stirrup, gunpowder and the printing press, the mechanical clock ranks as one of the great inventions in the history of mankind, with momentous economic, social, political and cultural consequences. Yet neither the artefact nor its impact has received much historical attention. Now, in two splendid and complementary books, the first attempt has been made to rectify these omissions. In a characteristically versatile display of cultural, technological and economic history, David Landes looks at the evolution of the clock as a machine, and at the triumph of public time as a discipline. And in an exceptionally wide-ranging foray into intellectual history, Stephen Kern explores the ways in which private notions of time (and space) were profoundly altered and extended in the thirty years before the First World War. The scope of these books is very different: one straddles the centuries; the other delves into decades. But between them, they make the history of time tick as it has never ticked before.

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