One of Smithsonian Magazine's Ten Best History Books of 2021
A captivating, surprising history of timekeeping and how it has shaped our world.
For thousands of years, people of all cultures have made and used clocks, from the city sundials of ancient Rome to the medieval water clocks of imperial China, hourglasses fomenting revolution in the Middle Ages, the Stock Exchange clock of Amsterdam in 1611, Enlightenment observatories in India, and the high-precision clocks circling the Earth on a fleet of GPS satellites that have been launched since 1978. Clocks have helped us navigate the world and build empires, and have even taken us to the brink of destruction. Elites have used them to wield power, make money, govern citizens, and control lives—and sometimes the people have used them to fight back.
Through the stories of twelve clocks, About Time brings pivotal moments from the past vividly to life. Historian and lifelong clock enthusiast David Rooney takes us from the unveiling of al-Jazari’s castle clock in 1206, in present-day Turkey; to the Cape of Good Hope observatory at the southern tip of Africa, where nineteenth-century British government astronomers moved the gears of empire with a time ball and a gun; to the burial of a plutonium clock now sealed beneath a public park in Osaka, where it will keep time for 5,000 years.
Rooney shows, through these artifacts, how time has been imagined, politicized, and weaponized over the centuries—and how it might bring peace. Ultimately, he writes, the technical history of horology is only the start of the story. A history of clocks is a history of civilization.
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.