About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

About Time coverAbout Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
David Rooney
W. W. Norton & Company (August 17, 2021), 279 pages
Kindle edition $9.18, Hardcover $24.43

I have always been a time nerd. When I was in elementary school I wanted both a watch and an alarm clock. I eventually got both. Later on, perhaps in my high school years, I became obsessed with accuracy. Folks in urban areas serviced by Pacific Telephone could call a number and get a voice telling them the exact time every ten seconds. Here in Hemet our phone company was General Telephone. For a long time we didn’t have a time service. When we eventually got one we had to listen to a one-sentence ad, followed by the time accurate only to the minute.

At Pitzer College in Claremont I was in the dorms my first three years and had to deal with the campus phone system and all its limitations. But I had my own phone my senior year when I lived off campus and then after graduation when I stayed in town for two years. General Telephone also serviced Claremont, but I could dial area code 213 and then the time phone number to get the accurate time from Pacific Telephone. My other option was to listen to the all-news radio station, KNX. There was always a tone at exactly the top of the hour that started the CBS radio newscast.

As an adult, when I lived in Oklahoma City I bought a boom box that included the shortwave band. That allowed me to listen to WWB, where a recorded voice gave the time every ten seconds. Later, in Silicon Valley, I bought watches that would sync to WWB’s automated time signal counterpart, WWVB. I still own two of them. These days, of course, our computers, smartphones, and cable boxes offer that accuracy transparently. I use my WWVB-synced watch or the cable box to ensure that the clocks on the stove and microwave are accurate.

So it should be no surprise that when I came across the book About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks I bought it. Fascinating stuff.

The author David Rooney tells us that the Roman general Valerius brought a sundial to Rome in 263 BCE. It was immediately unpopular as suddenly there was a new way to order people’s lives. He says that the science of measuring and ordering time goes back much further than that. He writes that the first water clocks date back over 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.

Rooney writes about the extent to which humankind has gone to display accurate time. He writes about the astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral which was finished in 1574. Rooney tells us that the clock displayed religious teaching and astrological prediction as well as the number of days between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday for a given year.

The implementation of electricity and the telegraph brought in a new phase of timekeeping. Telegraphs could also transmit time signals and in the late nineteenth century businesses could subscribe to a time signal service. A pub owner, for example, would know exactly when it was time to close.

Today’s clocks are incredibly accurate. Rooney explains that today’s financial markets require clocks that are accurate to 100 millionths of a second. I tend to think only of the GPS system that we use in the United States for time and location, but it turns out that there are at least three other satellite time and location systems.

Rooney claims that standardized time came into use not because of the railroads but because 1870s anti-alcohol reformers used clocks to manage their protests. Perhaps that was the case in England (Rooney is British) but I believe that in the United States our four time zones were closely tied to the railroads and their timetables.

Time nerd that I am, I found About Time a fascinating read with a lot of material that was new to me.



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