The Invention of the Mechanical Clock
In Europe, before the introduction of the mechanical clock, people told time by sun (using, for example, shadow sticks or sun dials) and water clocks. Sun clocks worked, of course, only on clear days; water clocks misbehaved when the temperature fell toward freezing, to say nothing of long-run drift as the result of sedimentation and clogging. Both these devices worked well in sunny climates; but in northern Europe the sun may be hidden by clouds for weeks at a time, while temperatures vary not only seasonally but from day to night.
Medieval Europe gave new importance to reliable time. The Catholic Church had its seven daily prayers, one of which was at night, requiring an alarm arrangement to waken monks before dawn. And then the new cities and towns, squeezed by their walls, had to know and order time in order to organize collective activity and ration space. They set a time to go to work, to open the market, to close the market, to leave work, and finally a time to put out fires and go to sleep. All this was compatible with older devices so long as there was only one authoritative timekeeper; but with urban growth and the multiplication of time signals, discrepancy brought discord and strife. Society needed a more dependable instrument of time measurement and found it in the mechanical clock.
We do not know who invented this machine, or where. It seems to have appeared in Italy and England (perhaps simultaneous invention) between 1275 and 1300. Once known, it spread rapidly, driving out water clocks but not solar dials, which were needed to check the new machines against the timekeeper of last resort. These early versions were rudimentary, inaccurate, and prone to breakdown.
Ironically, the new machine tended to undermine Catholic Church authority. Although church ritual had sustained an interest in timekeeping throughout the centuries of urban collapse that followed the fall of Rome, church time was nature`s time. Day and night were divided into the same number of parts, so that except at the equinoxes, day and night hours were unequal; and then of course the length of these hours varied with the seasons. But the mechanical clock kept equal hours, and this implied a new time reckoning. The Catholic Church resisted, not coming over to the new hours for about a century. From the start, however, the towns and cities took equal hours as their standard, and the public clocks installed in town halls and market squares became the very symbol of a new, secular municipal authority. Every town wanted one; conquerors seized them as especially precious spoils of war; tourists came to see and hear these machines the way they made pilgrimages to sacred relics.
The clock was the greatest achievement of medieval mechanical ingenuity. Its general accuracy could be checked against easily observed phenomena, like the rising and setting of the sun. The result was relentless pressure to improve technique and design. At every stage, clockmakers led the way to accuracy and precision; they became masters of miniaturization, detectors and correctors of error, searchers for new and better. They were thus the pioneers of mechanical engineering and served as examples and teachers to other branches of engineering.
The clock brought order and control, both collective and personal. Its public display and private possession laid the basis for temporal autonomy: people could now coordinate comings and goings without dictation from above. The clock provided the punctuation marks for group activity, while enabling individuals to order their own work (and that of others) so as to enhance productivity. Indeed, the very notion of productivity is a by-product of the clock: once one can relate performance to uniform time units, work is never the same. One moves from the task-oriented time consciousness of the peasant (working one job after another, as time and light permit) and the time-filling busyness of the domestic servant (who always had something to do) to an effort to maximize product per unit of time.