The social, cultural, and political dimensions of time

Long time readers of this blog will know that I conduct history of astronomy tours of the city of Nürnberg. This tour always starts at the main railway station at 10:30 am. This is so that having wound our way through the city, we arrive at the marketplace at the latest at 11:30, in time to drink a cup of coffee before 12:00. At twelve a crowd will have gathered on the marketplace gazing up at the impressive looking clock of the Frauenkirche, anticipating the Männlienlaufen, in English “the little men walking.   

Frauenkirche Nürnberg Clock Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beneath the impressive blue and gold clock dial sits an even more impressive Holy Roman Emperor on his throne holding the symbols of his office the orb and sceptre in his hands. He is flanked by two trumpeters holding floor length trumpets. Above the trumpeter on the right is a drummer and above the one to the left a flute player. Next to the drummer above the Emperor is a town-crier with a bell and next to the flautist a man holding up a sundial (he lost his sundial down the years). Above the clock dial is a blue and gold ball which shows the phases of the moon, still accurate today. Above the moon ball is an open bell tower flanked by two bellringers wielding hammers.

As noon arrives the mechanical clock begins its display. As the clock chimes the hour the two trumpeters raise their trumpets to play a fanfare. Then the drummer and the flute player both play. The town crier next to the drummer and the man holding up his sundial on the other side do their thing. At the end of this initial display, the two bell ringers above the clock being ringing their bells with their hammers. As these bells chime, A door to the right of the seated Emperor opens and seven, ornately clothed worthies troop out, circling the Emperor turning to view him as they pass; he in turn blesses them with his sceptre. They disappear through a door on the left only to appear once again on through the door on the right. The worthies circle the Emperor three times and then the display is over for another day.

When the display is over, I then explain the origins of the clock and its significance to my, mostly suitably impressed, guests. In 1356, the then Holy Roman Emperor, Karl IV, issued the so-called Golden Bull whilst holding court in the Imperial City of Nürnberg. This document became the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire and amongst many other laws it contains the rules for the election of the emperor and names the seven Kurfürsten (English Electors), who are appointed to carry out this task, the Archbishops of Mainz, Köln, and Trier, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. 

In 1506, the city council of Nürnberg ordered the construction of the clock to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the issuing of the Golden Bull and it continues to do so until today. The seven figures circling the emperor and paying him obeisance are the seven Kurfürsten and their ornate clothing is their robes of office. 

All of this means that this spectacular clock and its display symbolises quite a lot. It symbolises the central position of power of the Holy Roman Emperor and because it celebrates the Golden Bull it also represents the laws by which he exercises that power. It symbolises the orderly process by which, at least theoretically, the seven Kurfürsten choose and appoint the emperor, to rule over the patch work of nations and states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire. I say theoretically because the process was very often anything but orderly, sometimes even descending into war. Built in the façade of one on Nürnberg’s most prominent churches it symbolises the bond between Church and state; the Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally crowned by the pope. The issuing of the Golden Bull and this monument to it symbolises Nürnberg’s significance as an imperial city within the empire. Lastly, the clock itself and the man holding the sundial symbolise Nürnberg’s status as Europe’s premium manufacturer of scientific instruments. 

Analysed thus, this clock appears to carry a very heavy symbolic burden. One could perhaps argue that this is a unique timepiece, which indeed it is, and that the symbolism that it carries is thus also unique. Whilst this is true for some aspects, the Golden Bull for example, it is actually so that there is nothing really unique in the Nürnberger Frauenkirche clock’s political, social, religious, and commercial symbolism. Timepieces have almost always fulfilled these varied symbolic roles and historian of time David Rooney has written an excellent book detailing the symbolic functions of clocks down the ages from antiquity to the present, his About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks.[1]

The first thing to say about Rooney’s book is that the title contains a fib. There are not just twelve clocks in his book but lots more, in fact altogether not twelve but dozens of timepieces. So, why does he say twelve? This has to do with the structure of the book. The book has twelve chapters each one of which deals with a social, cultural, commercial, or political aspect of human existence that is effected or influenced or controlled or dictated or dominated by the measuring of the passage of time, described by a single word title. The theme of each chapter is introduced by one specific clock, whereby the word clock is used fairly elastically, and the word timepiece might be more appropriate. Having introduced his exemplary timepiece and explained how it produces the social effect described by the chapter’s title word, he then goes on to described other similar timepieces that fulfil the same function. 

To take one example. The second chapter of Rooney’s book is simply entitled Faith. It starts with a detailed description of al-Jazarī’s truly magnificent, water driven Castle clock from 1206.

Automatic castle clock of al-Jazari, 14th century copy. Source: Wikipedia Commons The book illustration is very poor quality

And believe you me, it was truly mind blowing in its complexity and took twenty-five years to construct. Although, built to impress the king Nāsir al-Dīn, his patron, its main was function was to demonstrate al-Dīn’s devotion to the worship of Allah. Having set up the concept of a clock as a symbol of religious devotion Rooney takes us on a tour of other Islamic devotional clocks, then moving on to timepieces used to mark the passage of time in Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist religious practice. Arriving on our journey in Europe and the story of the great medieval mechanical clocks found in churches and cathedrals celebrating God the creator of the universe.

My Nürnberg clock is a direct descendent of these awe-inspiring creations. We then trace the development of the modern mechanical clock out of these medieval marvels and the concept of time controlling the lives of upstanding people. The chapter closes with the author’s visit to the Museum of Science and Technology Museum in Islam in Saudi Arabia, which included a visit to the imposing Makkah Royal Clock Tower. 

The last is a strong feature of the book. Rooney, a master storyteller, doesn’t just talk about clocks, but also relates his own personal pilgrimages to view, admire, study, and learn about remarkable timepieces throughout the world. This is not just a book about time and timekeeping but also about the author’s lifelong journey to an understanding of time and the role that it has played in human existence. An understanding that he communicates to his readers in a flowing, easily accessible, and highly readable style. Rooney’s book relates how he became a time lord and invites his readers to undertake a journey through time and space in his time machine narrative. 

So where does time lord Rooney take us in his time machine narrative?  We set off in chapter one, Order, in ancient Rome in 263 BC and the introduction of the sundial into Roman culture and the dictate of order that measured time brought to that culture. Then, we follow that same dictate through other ancient cultures. Chapter two, Faith, as we have already seen shows the concept of time as imbodied in religions. Chapter three, Virtue, explains, amongst other things, how the hourglass became a symbol for virtue in the Middle Ages.

In chapter four, Markets, we spring into the seventeenth century and the birth of the stock exchanges closely followed by the stock exchange clock, to regulate the periods when share dealing was permitted. This leads us on the standardised time and those who created and sold it to those who needed it. Astronomical Knowledge is the theme of chapter five, and the observatories that were built to obtain that knowledge. Astronomical knowledge is, of course, the fundament of time measurement. Chapter six takes into the world of Empires and the elaborate time signals–time balls, midday cannons etc.–that the rulars of empire installed all over the globe, in the nineteenth century to give accurate time to their marine fleets, so that they could navigate on the high seas.

We enter the world of Manufacture in chapter seven and in particular the world of clock manufacture in the modern period. Here Rooney traces how and why the market dominance changed from European country to European country over time. Chapter eight tackles Morality starting with the introduction of an electric time system in Brno at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an introduction to the beginnings of rigorous time standardisation throughout the world. Chapter nine, Resistance, deals with the pushbacks against the dictates of time that have flared up from time to time throughout history. He starts with the fascinating, suffragette attempted bombings of those centres of time, the Royal Observatories in Edinburgh and Greenwich.

Chapter ten, Identity, tells the story of TIM, the British talking clock, and the fascinating story of how TIM’s voice was selected in a nationwide casting competition, and you thought casting shows were a recent invention. What identity should the voice of time have? This chapter evoked strong memories of having often dialled TIM and hearing those crisp English tones, at the third stroke…

The original voice of TIM

This expands to the general, perhaps central, question, what are clocks or rather what are clocks to us, the people who live with and by them? Chapter eleven, War, brings a very central theme of human existence or perhaps those attempts to end that existence and a very modern application of time the invention of GPS. You use GPS to help you navigate the traffic jams on the way home from you well-earned summer holidays, but you shouldn’t forget that GPS was developed to help the military land its guided missiles on target. GPS is in essence nothing more and nothing less that a network of very accurate clocks. Here, Rooney wakes the spectre of a doomsday disaster. Over the decades an incredible amount of earth-bound infrastructure has become totally depended on GPS and related systems; Rooney dares to pose the question, what would occur if the systems all failed?

Chapter twelve, Peace, takes the reader into the future and into the realm of clocks designed and built to still function millennia from now, as time capsules, a message to our descendants, should we actually still have any.

Rooney’s book is a masterpiece in telling us how our lives, our very existence, became subservient to the dictates of time and its measuring devices, the clock in all its myriad forms. As already stated, Rooney is a master storyteller, and his narrative is a deceptively simple read. It’s interpretation and the digestion of its message are perhaps not so simple. There are endnotes that are simple short references to the selected bibliographies presented for each individual chapter. The apparatus is rounded out with a comprehensive index. The book is illustrated with the now ubiquitous greyscale prints, several of which leave much to be desired in terms of quality, my only complaint in an otherwise excellent volume.

This is not a book for specialist historians of science and technology, who however can read this book and gain much in doing so, but a book for everyone, who in interested in the relationship between the human species and time and how it got to where it is, and that should actually be everyone.  


[1] David Rooney, About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks, Viking an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2021

6 Comments

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6 responses to “The social, cultural, and political dimensions of time

  1. How many people do you need in order to do a tour? How long in advance does one have to request it? Is it over after the clock chimes or does it continue?

  2. Minimum one person, maximum twelve. They are usually arranged between myself and those who wish to, so organisation times very. Currently not available because of deterioration in my spinal problems, which makes it for me both unpleasant and difficult to walk. When on offer it carries on after the clock chimes for about another 90 to 120 minutes, followed by lunch, which is for blog readers the price of the tour, about €25. For parties the commercial rate is €120 + €30 expenses.

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