Today, let's see what clocks have to tell us
besides the time of day. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The mechanical clock was
invented around AD 1300 -- give or take a little.
Two hundred and fifty years later, clocks had
become very sophisticated machines. Otto Mayr's
book on the third century of clock-making --
The Clockwork Universe: 1550 to 1650
-- provides a remarkable insight, not just into the
glorious clocks of this period, but into the nature
of invention as well.
As machines go, clocks have an odd character. You
wind them up and then sit back to watch them carry
out their function. A well-designed clock goes on
and on, showing the time of day without human
intervention and without self-correction. And so
the ideal clock -- the clock that we almost, but
never quite, make -- became a parable of divine
By the middle of the 16th century, clocks weren't
just accurate; they were also remarkably beautiful
-- adorned with stunning, but seemingly useless,
mechanical trimming. Robots marched out on the hour
and performed short plays. Extra dials displayed
the movements of planets. Clocks were crowned with
exquisite miniature gold, bronze, and silver
The intricate wheels and gears of these Baroque
clocks became a metaphor for the solar system, for
the universe, for the mind of man, and for the very
nature of God. The best minds and talents were
drawn into the seemingly decorative work of
clock-making because clocks harnessed the
imagination of 16th-century Europe.
All this was rather strange, because there was no
need for precision time-keeping. Later, during the
18th century, the clock began to take its role as a
scientific instrument -- especially for its use in
celestial navigation. But in 1600 the clock was
primarily an esthetic and intellectual exercise.
Our thinking is so practical today. We'd probably
condemn this activity as a misuse of resources. But
the stimulus of the clock eventually drove us to
unimagined levels of quality in instrument-making.
It drove and focused philosophical thinking. In the
end, the precision of this frivolous high
technology was a cornerstone for 17th-century
scientific revolution, for 18th-century
rationalism, and -- in the long run -- for the
industrial and political revolution that brought in
the 19th century.
16th and 17th-century clock-making was the work of
technologists who danced to their own free-wheeling
imaginations and esthetics -- technologists who
were having fun. That kind of technologist really
changes his world, and make no mistake -- these
Baroque clock-makers set great changes in motion.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Maurice, K. and Mayr, O., The Clockwork
Universe: German Clocks and Automata.
Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution and
New York: Neal Watson Academic Publishers, 1980.
This episode has been rewritten as Episode 1294.
From the 1911 Enclopaedia
An old tower clock from Hidalgo,
Baroque-style mechanism drives four eight-foot
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.