Today, religious practice and the mechanical clock.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
David Landes's book A
Revolution in Time traces the measurement of
time through time. Landes asks a double
question: "What's driven us to measure time, and
what's that measurement done to us?"
He thinks medieval monasteries set the stage:
Regular prayer is an old idea. Ancient Jews prayed
at daybreak, in the afternoon, and after dark.
Islam called for daily prayers at dawn, just after
noon, before and after sunset, and when it's dark
again. (I'll never forget the eerie beauty of dawn
in a remote Tunisian town. The call to prayer was
sung from a minaret. Then overlapping calls spun
from one minaret to the next, welling up and
encircling us like a Bach canon. It left no doubt
that the day had begun well.)
Early Christians mixed Jewish practice with
Roman hours. St. Paul had ordained prayer
without ceasing. If unceasing prayer was taken
literally, no work would get done. The Church
compromised by increasing the number of prayer
events to eight. Those became the canonical hours
with their old Roman names: Matins,
Lauds, Prime, Terce,
Sext, Nones, Vespers, and
Notice that only four of those times carry
numerical names. That's because the Romans numbered
only the daylight hours. Prime, the first
hour, was the beginning of the measured day at 6:00
AM. Terce, the third hour, was 9:00 AM. You
may wonder why the third hour was three hours after
the first hour. That's because the Romans had no
zero. Zero was an Indian invention that would be
introduced by Arab scholars centuries later.
Sext was noon and Nones was 3:00 PM.
By the way, the old idea of rescuing someone at the
"eleventh hour" meant 5:00 PM, or eleven hours
after 6:00 AM.
The original Matins wasn't observed in the
morning. Rather, it was a set of three awakenings
or Nocturnes during the night, sometimes
called Vigils. And here the fun begins:
whoever tended the water clock through the night
had the same kind of nervous responsibility as a
military sentry. Monastic writings are filled with
fretful fears of falling asleep during the night
All this cried out for the invention of the
mechanical clock. The sequence went like this: The
canonical hours were well-defined by the ninth
century. A century later, the Benedictines, then
the Cistercians, made monasteries into a powerful
part of medieval culture and economy. The
Cistercians were consummate technologists.
Water clocks froze in winter and barely provided
enough force to actuate bells. When weight-driven
mechanical clocks appeared around 1300, they
provided both the power and the accuracy that water
clocks didn't have. Mechanical clocks solved the
canonical hours problem, then went on to become
both temporal and philosophical drivers in that
once timeless life of contemplation. The canonical
hours at last stopped serving as increments between
prayers. Now they became the new boxes that would
delineate all of modern life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Landes, D.S., Revolution in Time; Clocks and the
Making of the Modern World. New York: Barnes and
Noble books, 1983, Section I, Finding Time.
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines,
Din, don, din; din, don, din.
L'Horloge de Sapience (the Clock of Wisdom)
from about 1450.
The clock was, by now, becoming a metaphor for
virtue of all kinds.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.
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