Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1005:
ANOTHER TAKE ON TIME

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1005.

Today, a reflection on creativity and time. 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, Revolution in Time, begins by quoting Lewis Mumford: "The clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing [action]."

Well, now! Synchronicity is a seductive enemy of creativity. Didn't Mussolini begin by making the trains run on time? I fight like a trapped animal when anyone tries to schedule my time. A line from the show Fantasticks tells us to recall "that special place where once -- just once -- you hid away in shadows from the tyranny of time." Good advice! The first step on the way to finding our creative center is turning off the clock.

Landes reminds us that, in the 11th century, Chinese water-clock making was far ahead of Europe's. Soon after, China turned her back on creative clock-making, and the West began driving the technologies of time. Why did the West -- not the East -- race to embrace mechanical time? Part of the answer lies in tyranny of another kind. Widespread time-telling became a democratic force in the West, while Chinese time-telling stayed within the Chinese court. Time never became the property of the people.

When Jesuit missionaries went to China in the 16th century, they found timekeeping in a deplorable state. Even sundials were unreliable! So the Jesuits used fine European clocks as gifts. The Chinese regarded them as splendid toys -- and the only element of a barbarian culture worth adopting.

Chinese palaces soon had chiming clocks in every room. Yet high officials had to stand about in rain and snow waiting for audiences with the emperor. The audience began when the emperor said it did. Time, however well-measured it was within the palace, was the emperor's property -- to waste as he pleased.

In the West, everyone used time. Out of accurate time-keeping grew a new sense of scientific precision. After lagging the Chinese for a millennium, Western technology now leapt ahead. And time -- once a biological sense and a fact of nature -- was now defined by instruments. If time was democratic, it also grew away from biology and nature. We became slaves to clocks themselves. And so poet Walter Benton wrote:

The clock-hand turns ... closes the circle upon us ...
sucks us in like quicksand, receives us totally --
without a raincheck or a parachute,
a key to heaven or the last long look ...

Possession in any form -- by people or by time -- is creativity's enemy. To function creatively we have to claim freedom. That means being able to turn off the tyranny of time. We must be within the task -- or the idea. Creativity flows from the bliss of the moment, untouched by time -- or by any of the many tyrannies that've always attached themselves to time.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Landes, D.S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983, Part I, Finding Time.

Jones, T., and Schmidt, H., The Fantasticks. New York: Avon Books, 1968, 1971, p. 54.

Benton, W., This Is My Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943, 1975, p. 3.

I am grateful to Thomas W. McConn, UH History Department, for providing the Landes source.

For more on the subjective character of time, see Episodes 1224, 986, and 538.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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