cover image About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks

David Rooney. Norton, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-86793-0

Rooney, the former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, debuts with a rich survey of how timekeeping has shaped human history. Beginning with the first city sundial mounted in ancient Rome in 263 BCE, Rooney argues that clocks have been used to control behavior and secure power. Built in 1611, Amsterdam’s Stock Exchange Clock contributed to the “birth of modern capitalism” by tolling the city’s “short, fixed trading hours,” which increased trade volume and helped keep prices fair. In the 1830s, British astronomers at the Cape of Good Hope observatory in South Africa helped ships set their navigational instruments to time by firing a pistol and dropping a “time ball” from the top of a wooden mast (“an act of imperial timekeeping shot over the heads of the African people who were being displaced from their land and robbed of their freedom and humanity”). In the late 19th century, a new U.S.-based manufacturing system built on interchangeable parts and specialist machines brought the British clockmaking industry to its knees before revolutionizing manufacturing around the world. Rooney is an enthusiastic and well-informed guide, and doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the story. Readers will gain newfound appreciation for what it means to keep the time. (Aug.)