Our Trusty Friend the Watch

Simon Schaffer

  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time by Dava Sobel
    Fourth Estate, 184 pp, £12.99, August 1996, ISBN 1 85702 502 4

The curious Lilliputians guessed Gulliver’s pocket-watch must be ‘the God that he worships’, because ‘he assured us he seldom did anything without consulting it.’ The giant King of Brobdingnag had a different perspective: Gulliver must ‘be a piece of Clockwork (which is in that country arrived to a very great perfection)’. Any acute 18th-century reader of Swift would easily make sense of these timely jokes. Britain was then rapidly establishing world leadership in precision horology and its citizens increasingly seemed driven by the workings of the clock. Time management became a way of judging others – busy bourgeois, dawdling plebeians, languorous natives. Time discipline was imposed on workshops. Fine jewelling to reduce friction and ingenious machines to cut gears helped to make clocks of stunning accuracy. Pocket watches began to tell seconds, and, to assist the genteel Newmarket punters, even fractions of a second. Fashionable theologians preached that the Creation itself was best understood as godly clockwork.

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