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.

The first panel of Landes’s timely triptych considers why mechanical clocks were invented in Europe rather than China, where the auguries were in many ways so much better. In Medieval times, China was the undisputed scientific and horological leader; master craftsmen like Su Sung built splendid and elaborate water clocks between the tenth and 12th centuries: and yet the next obvious step, the construction of weight-driven, mechanical clocks, was one which the Chinese resolutely refused to take. Quite simply, Landes suggests, there was no demand: the Chinese did not need time badly enough to measure it precisely. The workers who laboured in the fields regulated their lives by the rhythms of nature; and the Imperial Court was more concerned to track the movement of the heavenly bodies than to measure the passing of earthly time. Calendar dates might matter: but hours and minutes did not. In Europe, by contrast, they did: first in the monasteries, where the services had to be said on time, night and day, hour by hour; and then in the towns, where there was no natural sequence of tasks to provide the rhythm of the day. So, unlike China, the West needed pervasive, public time: with the clock as with everything else, necessity was the mother of invention.

Thus was the mechanical clock invented: how was it perfected? Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, it evolved from being massive, crude, weight-driven and highly approximate in performance, into the compact, portable, dependable, precise and sophisticated clock or watch. In retrospect, this development seems clear and inevitable: each improvement posed new challenges by bringing to the fore problems which had previously been relatively small enough to be neglected. But at the time, the competing claims of greater miniaturisation and more elaborate ornamentation remained strong; the search for greater precision only slowly came to dominate invention and development; and even then there were many false trails and blind alleys. Landes’s account of coiled springs, pendulums, minute and second hands, and jewelled bearings makes fascinating reading, and is peppered with a rich array of crackpot ideas, unscrupulous plagiarists, disputes about priority, unhonoured genius and the like. The path to true time did not run straight or smooth.

In the final, and largest, section of his book, Landes considers the making and manufacture of clocks in the seven-hundred-year period which extends from invention to obsolescence. He follows the clock-making coterie across Europe, from Italy to Germany to France to England and Geneva and then on to the Swiss Jura where, despite strong American challenges from the mid-19th century onwards, productive pre-eminence remained for as long as the clock continued to be the best way of telling the time. Of all these shifts in production location that Landes describes, the most interesting took place in the early 19th century, when the British, who had been supreme clock-makers for nearly a hundred years, yielded pride of place to the Swiss. Landes’s account of British decline has a dismal and contemporary ring to it: high costs, conservative styling, obsolescent techniques, entrepreneurial complacency and resistance by labour to innovation. But the reasons for the sustained and spectacular success of the Swiss are less easy to discover. Culture and religion no doubt had a great deal to do with it, but as the author admits, there is no easy or simple explanation. Perhaps Glynis Johns came nearest to the truth when she allegedly remarked: ‘I think the Swiss have sublimated their sense of time into watch-making.’ For a century and a half, they remained supreme at their craft, and when they were undone, it was not by rival manufacturers of better or cheaper clocks, but by the quartz revolution: when the ticking had to stop.

Admirers of Professor Landes’s work will have no difficulty in recognising all his hallmarks in this book. There is the tone of cosmopolitan sophistication, of a man at ease in the auction rooms, galleries and universities of the Western world; the easy mastery of the history and languages of most European countries; the ability to write of technology, machinery and gadgetry with authority, enthusiasm and finesse; the unshakable belief that cultural values are a prime determinant of entrepreneurial and hence economic performance; and a resolute scepticism about the determinist theories which underpin so much of the recent New Economic History. Throughout its pages, the text scintillates with wise and witty aphorisms: ‘fashion abhors bulges’; ‘there is no better way to consign something to oblivion than to put it in a Festschrift’; ‘nothing has more power to stir French genius than the prospect of beating the English’; ‘the essence of every con game is the victim’s eagerness to get something for nothing.’ The evocation of 18th-century London as a great maritime and commercial capital is beautifully done; and the mock-heroic account of ‘The Case of the Cryptic Clock’ could not be bettered. Early in his account, Landes notes that clocks are the product of ‘ingenuity, craftsmanship, artistry and elegance’: so is this book.

There are, of course, difficulties. As Landes candidly admits, his book is ‘only a prologue’, and cannot avoid some of the pitfalls of the pioneer. The early chapters in both the first and second sections, which deal with the Medieval world, are necessarily very speculative. The author writes with such assurance that it all sounds extremely plausible: but much of it is little more than inspired conjecture. Of necessity, too, the vocabulary is often very technical: constant talk of clepsydras, escapements, gear trains and oscillatory motion becomes a trifle wearisome. And sentences like ‘the atomic clocks of the national observatories use quartz crystal oscillators with frequencies of some 2.5 megacycles per second, checked by cesium-beamed resonators vibrating at 9, 192, 631, 770 ± 20 cycles per second,’ are not easy to assimilate. Above all, this is very much a supply-side story: about invention, technology and entrepreneurship. This is probably the only way the subject can be realistically handled; but it would be good to know more about who bought the clocks and watches, and why. In the end, it seems to come down to our old friends the triumphant middle classes, who would never have risen without the clock. And, although there is much on the culture that produced the clock, there is less on the impact of the clock on culture. The diffusion of time awareness throughout society and around the world awaits extended treatment.

In one sense, Landes’s book ends on what for him is obviously a sombre note – the demise of the clock as the supreme means of measuring time. But in another, it is more of a success story, which finishes with the triumph of time: public and uniform, universal and irresistible. Clocks may stop, but time goes on. Indeed, since the late 19th century, local time has been inexorably killed, as global time has become all-conquering. In 1883, largely under pressure from the railway companies, the United States adopted a system of time zones. In the following thirty years, World Standard Time was established virtually throughout the globe, with Greenwich universally recognised as the noughth meridian. No wonder the demand for clocks, so largely met by the Swiss, was unprecedented. But this was not the only development on the time front that took place in these years. For, as Stephen Kern is at pains to point out, the very period which saw the establishment of public time brought about a reaction in thinking about private time (and space). As the measurement of time became more public and precise, so the perception of time became more private and pluralistic. Not for nothing did Conrad’s secret agent set out to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, the supreme symbol of standard time.

Perception of past time, for instance, was fundamentally transformed in the three decades before the First World War. The development of the phonograph and the cinema meant that the past was no longer something finished, separate and discrete, but actively persisted into the present in a new and immediate way. There was also a reaction against the public past of history towards the private past of the mind. It was there that Freud sought the sources of individual neuroses; he stressed the crucial importance of childhood experience in influencing later life; and he argued that all subsequent experiences, too, left traces in the mind that shaped future responses. In an allied manner, Proust explored the preservation of the past in our bodies in the form of memory, which only needed some apparently random stimulus to awaken it. For Proust, as for Freud, the personal, private past was both good and important: they disagreed as to whether it could be rediscovered by active or passive means, but they were at one in seeing it as the best way to a happy future. Others were not so sure: Nietzsche and Ibsen saw the past as bad and burdensome, as did Joyce, who, in Ulysses, argued that history was the nightmare from which Stephen was trying to awake. There was, in short, no consensus about the past inside your head – except that it mattered more than the past anywhere else.

As the past was privatised and explored, so perceptions of the present underwent changes. The wireless telegraph, the telephone and the cinema all extended the present spatially, making possible simultaneity of experience across distance, most famously illustrated in the sinking of the Titanic, where many people far removed from the scene were able to experience the disaster directly, at first hand, as it happened. In the creative arts, the same development in public time was privately investigated through simultaneous poetry and music, and most famously in Joyce’s more advanced books, which were montages of many simultaneous events rather than in traditional narrative form. The present was also extended temporally, as its sharp edges were blurred and its brief duration was lengthened, to include parts of the past and fragments of the future. Philosophers debated the nature and duration of what we experience as ‘now’; Virginia Woolf explored in her novels heightened moments of the extended present; and the cinema ‘thickened’ the present into slow time, by prising open and expanding particular moments and events. The present ceased to be ephemeral and instantaneous, and merged imperceptibly into the flowing stream of time.

Both the past and the present were publicly extended and privately explored and the same was true of the future. In some ways, it was incorporated into the global present; in others, it was explored individually, imaginatively and intuitively. The whole pace of life speeded up: trains and steamships went faster than ever before; bicycles, cars, trams and aeroplanes enhanced the inexorable sense of speed; business transactions were more rapid, thanks to the telephone and the telegraph; and the cinema was an appropriately dynamic art-form to reflect and record this new dynamic age. Imperialism was another way of rushing forward, as politicians saw in it a way of ‘pegging out claims for the future’. More privately and less acquisitively, the next world was explored artistically and poetically in the works of the Futurists, while H.G. Wells speculated on what might happen next in a string of Science Fiction novels. Most of these prophets viewed the future with enthusiasm. But not all: Spengler gazed into the future with as much pessimism as Ibsen peered into the past.

So it is not easy to generalise. But Kern’s essential point stands out: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even as public time coalesced, private time fragmented. The one became more absolute, while the other became more relative. And this is only part of the story: for there were similar and simultaneous changes in perceptions of space as well. The demise of Euclidean geometry and the rise of relativity meant that, spatially as well as temporally, nothing was absolute any more. Matter was no longer either stable or separate: X-rays could pierce it, and what they showed suggested it was no different from void. The new technology killed remoteness: national boundaries were crossed by planes; the telephone pierced privacy; the global village was at hand. The first space-invaders were earth-bound not extraterrestrial: the last frontier was closed in the United States; Africa was partitioned; nowhere was remote any more. Art reflected this, or developed unawares along parallel lines: there was a multiplication of points of view, and after the Cubists, homogeneous, three-dimensional space was never the same again. Space, like time, was everywhere in flux.

From all this to the First World War was but a short step, well illustrated by the crisis of July 1914. The telegraph and the telephone so accelerated the pace of events that there was no opportunity, as in the old days, for delay to wield its ameliorating influence. In other ways, too, the nations involved were obsessed with time: members of the Entente, secure in their national pasts, looked to the future with guarded optimism; but the newer nations of the Alliance fell much less at ease. Appropriately, Europe rushed headlong into war, amidst a flurry of telephones, telegrams and timetables – ragtime on a grand scale. As with its origins, so with its actuality, the war was largely about time. In some ways, it homogenised it: there was no scope for private time; synchronised operations were the order of the day; every soldier needed a watch. But in other ways, it changed time out of all recognition. Life at the Front seemed so utterly bizarre that there was no connection whatsoever between it and what had gone before: the present and the past were completely separate. And so were the present and the future: here and now was all that there was; death was just around the corner; perhaps Spengler had been right all along.

No brief summary can do justice to the riches and range of this exciting book, which brims with ideas and insights, evidence and examples, and provides the most comprehensive account of the life of the mind in these crucial decades before the First World War, when so much of our modern world was formed and fashioned. Kern’s command of art and literature, painting and architecture, philosophy and psychology, physics and technology, is awesome: he moves from Proust to Picasso, Einstein to Stravinsky, with consummate ease and unquenchable enthusiasm. Unavoidably, in a book of such ambitious scope, there are sins of omission and commission. There should have been something, for instance, on the rise, dissemination and impact of professional history, of that public past against which the proponents and explorers of the private past were allegedly reacting. And the chapters on the First World War, although they round off the book well, do not always seem consistent with, or relevant to, some of what has gone before. The stress on homogeneous time, for instance, seems to contradict much of the earlier discussion on the growth and proliferation of private time.

In truth, the period Kern treats was so complex, creative and bewildering that no single book, however accomplished, can do full justice to it. Here, on occasions, the great names rush by at such frenzied speed that it is hard to take it all in. The attempts to relate public and private time, time and space, culture and technology, do not always come off: the developments were not always in the same direction, and it is not always clear what, if any, were the connections. Above all, one must ask just how many people, even in the West, let alone the rest of the world, were really influenced, in this period, by the developments Kern describes. How many ordinary people read Freud, heard Stravinsky, used the telephone, or went flying? For the majority of people between the years 1880 and 1914, it was probably the triumph of Landes’s public time, rather than the fragmentation of Kern’s private time, which was the more remarkable and all-pervasive development. Many of the changes of which he writes did not make a major impact on Western society as a whole until the interwar years at the earliest, and reached the Third World much later still. But for most people, the things of which Kern writes were more the shape of things to come than the way we live now: another time, perhaps.

Measurement of time is one thing; perception of it quite another. The history of public time leads inexorably in one direction; that of private time proceeds along a bewildering variety of contradictory paths. The treatment of time by thinkers and inventors, scientists and entrepreneurs, is relatively easy to deal with: but the diffusion of time, the adoption of its discipline by the majority of people, is much less easy to pin down. Such is the whirligig of time which Landes and Kern have sought to slow and study, bringing together history and horology, Clio and the clock, in two pioneer works which will surely stand the test of time. They deserve a big hand (and perhaps a little hand too).