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How Clocks Helped Conquer the World

by William S. Hammack on Mar 27, 2000

            This Sunday [April 2] as you set your clock ahead for daylight-saving
       time note that you're holding the tool Western Europeans used to conquer
       the world. A clock? Conquer the world? Yes. Western Europe's domination
       began with clocks.
            The power to measure time helped turn the backward ninth-century
       tribes of Europe into the powerhouses of the world 600 years later.
       Europe trailed, in the ninth century, far behind other regions. The
       Muslims, for example, already excelled in mathematics and mechanical
       innovation, and China had already pioneered steel making and gunpowder.
       Yet by the 15th century Western Europeans ruled the world.
            Portugal had expanded west to Brazil and east to the Indian ocean, Spain
       claimed the Americas, and the Netherlands had developed an Asian empire.
       And by the 19th century Western Europe's domination reached its apex in
       Queen Victoria's empire, over which truly the sun never set. How did these
       backward ninth-century Europeans accomplish all this?
            The obvious answer is "science and technology," but there is a more
       specific answer — one that warms my engineer's heart — and that is
       numbers. Or better put: quantifying the world by numbers. The West brought
       together mathematics and measurement to record reality, and thus the power
       to control it. And this brings us to clocks.
            Clocks were the first way Europeans quantified the world. The chime of
       the town clock chopped the day into numbered segments, calling out the time
       to start or stop trading, or go to church. This was a sharp contrast with
       days marked only by dawn and sunset.
            Such quantification spread to all aspects of life. Numbers affected
       music, armies, art and navigation. The free-form Gregorian chants of the
       ninth century gave way to music with a rich meter controlled by a clock.
       And it was a short step from regimented music to regiments and powerful
       armies. The political philosopher Machiavelli noted that just as a dancing
       man "keeps time with the music, [and] cannot make a false step; so an army
       that properly observes the beat of the drums cannot easily be disordered."
            Paintings from the ninth century look odd to our eye; they seem
       flat and lifeless. It was the use of numbers that gave artists the power to
       put perspective into their paintings. Artists could now create realistic
       pictures. And from these geometrically accurate paintings evolved maps
       filled with gridlines, lines that divided space into numbers. The maps
       overflowed with compass bearings, depth measurements, tide tables and even
       the times pirates might be expected. These number-laden maps guided sailors
       across the seas to conquer new worlds.
            Bookkeepers and bean counters, armed with numbers, followed the
       sailors. These merchants and bureaucrats used double-entry bookkeeping to
       control commerce, industry and government. Double-entry bookkeeping doesn't
       sound like a world-changing innovation, yet it allowed a merchant to
       "picture" the reality of the business. Bookkeeping was an essential tool,
       or quantification, that allowed Western Europe to rule the world.
            The poet Auden summed up the result of all these numbers for the
       West: We live in societies "to which the study of that which can be weighed
       and measured is a consuming love." Not to me: Tomorrow my alarm clock will
       screech and command me to divide my day into bits and pieces, but when I
       rise, especially with one less hour of sleep, I probably won't feel like
       following my Western heritage and conquering the world.

William S. Hammack is a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a writer for the History News Service. His radio commentaries on "Engineering & Life" are heard on public radio stations.