An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2003

Clocks & the wealth of nations

David S. Landes
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David S. Landes is Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University. A Fellow of the American Academy since 1967, he has been bridging disciplines throughout his career as an economist and a specialist in the modern history of Western Europe and the Middle East. His books include The Unbound Prometheus (1969), Revolution in Time (1983), and, most recently, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998).

A recent novel by Dai Sijie, Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise,1 tells of the impact of an alarm clock imported into a Chinese farm village:

Before, in this village, there had been neither alarm, nor watch, nor clock. People had always lived by the rising or setting of the sun.

We were surprised to see how the alarm assumed a veritable power over the peasants, almost sacred. Everyone came to consult it, as if our house were some kind of temple. Every morning the same ritual: the chief strode around our house, smoking his bamboo pipe, as long as an old rifle. He did not stop looking at the alarm. And at 9 o’clock precisely, he gave a long, deafening whistle, to send the villagers off to the fields.

– It’s time, you hear me! he shouted out to the houses around. It’s time to work, you good-for-nothings! What are you waiting for?

Almost all cultures and civilizations have concerned themselves with time, if only to give cues and set bounds to social and religious activity. To these ends, they have relied principally on repetitive natural phenomena – on the movements and changing lineaments of heavenly bodies. Such clues are not regular in occurrence nor identical from one to another point of observation. They are sufficiently so, however, for most practical purposes.

The more technologically advanced societies have gone beyond passive observation to create instruments of time measurement – what we call clocks. These initially relied on the observation and measurement of an artificially created regularity – a gravity-driven falling column of water or sand, for example. Such instruments can provide a fairly accurate measure, though they do not afford identical comparisons among themselves and require painstaking attention by way of refilling the chamber and restarting the process. Resetting the clock requires an accurate standard that takes account of seasonal variations, and, insofar as this standard may be the sky, may require such associated tools as a telescope and a little bit of luck in the way of good visibility.

It was this uncertain visibility that may have pushed European time-watchers to invent a mechanical clock. In any case, the Europeans early on sought to invent a machine that would keep time of itself and continue to do so even during moments of rewinding; that would depend, in other words, as little as possible on celestial indicators. The critical innovation turned out to be the principle and technique of oscillation – of coming and going, va-et-vient – a combination whose regularity combined with repetitiveness to provide countable time units. It found realization in the thirteenth century. From then on, and simply because one civilization had invented mechanical clocks and the other had not, West diverged from East, Europe from Asia.

This divergence found expression and consequence, first, in the making of timekeepers; and second, in their use.

As to the making: the accuracy now lay in the instrument itself, which had to be built to appropriate standards. This meant that every part had to be cut to the utmost precision, which in turn called for tools and measures unimagined before. The effect was felt not only in clock-making but also in other branches of manufacture, including those not yet known. Where once what mattered was the craftsman’s feel for his work and tools, now standards could be set in advance and were subject to external prescription and judgment of performance.

As to the use: temporal precision had to matter. It came early to matter in Europe for its own sake; application came later. Elsewhere, time continued either to be a visual function, available to all, or the prerogative of an authority that dictated accuracy from above.

China is an excellent example of the differences that emerged between Europe and Asia. This was a civilization that esteemed timekeepers and built good water clocks (klepsydras) to this purpose. Students of the history of Chinese technology and invention have long boasted of Chinese precocity and originality, and sought to explain subsequent Western leadership as the result of copycat emulation, citing such items as paper, printing, porcelain, and gunpowder. Timekeeping has challenged this model. It is not only that the mechanical clock is so much better an instrument than the klepsydra. It is that even when Europeans brought the clock to China, as gift, bribe, and boast, the Chinese, who loved it, never really learned how to make it. In matters of technology, early modern Europeans were simply much better students.

The Europeans also took temporal accuracy much more seriously. For the Chinese, this was not a problem, because the hour was what the authorities said it was. They did have access to celestial indicators: the positions of planets and stars, the sky map. But barring egregious discrepancies, the pursuit of such information was more trouble than it was worth, especially to potential astronomers who had little to gain from diligence. We have here from the eighteenth century an informative set of letters from a Jesuit missionary, P. Parennin, to the director of the Académie des Sciences in Paris.2 His first point: that good observations brought little gain or recompense to those who made them. They might rise to honor in the Mathematical Tribunal, but such advance brought little income, the less so as Mathematics was subordinate to the Tribunal of Ceremonies. Even worse, the risk outweighed the profit, as a mistake could cost a year or two of salary.

As a result, the instruments needed for accurate observation, the eyeglasses and water clocks, were simply neglected and abandoned. Nor did the authorities impose their use:

The palace of the Emperor is well equipped in this respect, and these instruments are [often] the work of Europe’s best craftsmen; but the emperor Cang-hi [Kangxi] who has had the astronomical tables corrected and has equipped the [Peking] observatory with so many beautiful instruments, and who besides knows better than anyone how much eyeglasses and clocks are necessary to exact observations, has never ordered his mathematicians to use them. No doubt these last have been strongly opposed to these inventions and have made much of the nation’s attachment to older ways – a position where they are guided only by their own interest. We have every reason to fear that with a change in dynasty, the older Chinese instruments, once relegated to the scrap furnace, will reappear with honor, and that those devices that have usefully replaced them will be sent to the foundry, the better to erase their very memory.

Meanwhile, the Europeans found new ways to use time. Where other societies saw it as a clue to banal everyday work schedules, the Europeans, who also used it that way, integrated it into other activities and changed them completely. Take sailing and navigation: the very performance that brought the Europeans around Africa into eastern waters depended on knowledge of latitude, and latitude calculations made use of calendrical data on the timing of the positions of celestial bodies, times eventually assembled in tabular form (ephemerides and almanacs).

Why was latitude so important? Because of the special conditions of navigation in the south Atlantic. The original assumption of Portuguese sailors heading southward was to hug the western coast of Africa, using it as guide, shelter, and source of provisions in traditional coasting fashion. The trouble was that this was a singularly barren and inhospitable coast, marked by countervailing winds and currents, so that this prudent recourse to established navigational technique entailed long voyages – so long as to threaten the health and survival of the crew.

Appropriate procedure called for navigational avoidance, for sailing west with wind and currents – as far west as the coast of what came to be called Brazil or South America – and then, after swinging south, for picking up the powerful eastward antarctic stream that would carry the vessels swiftly past the southern point of Africa into eastern waters. To do this, however, required a knowledge of latitude, and this called for frequent time readings. Initially these were based on celestial observations at intervals – an approximate but roughly satisfactory procedure. Over the years and decades, however, navigators learned to use clocks. Not the klepsydra, for that was a timekeeper that worked only when kept still. But the weight-driven mechanical clock was another matter and in the higher spring-driven chronometer form of the eighteenth century it made possible the calculation of longitude. Together with latitude this made it possible for European navigators to locate themselves. It was time, then, in combination with navigational imagination and courage, that opened the world. And so it was that the ‘barbarians’ came to Asia, and not the reverse.

The Chinese had in fact sent out larger fleets with larger vessels a half century earlier, and these had reached the east coast of Africa.3 That is as far as they went, for their primary aim was to bring back specimens of wildlife unknown in China – giraffe, hippopotamus – and add them to the emperor’s collections, in demonstration of his pretensions to universality. But this costly venture posed problems of etiquette once the captive beasts reached China: the emperor wanted to see his new giraffe, but the rules had it that the emperor could not, should not, go out of his way to see anybody or anything; he or it had to come to him. So the courtiers arranged for the emperor to take a walk in his park, where he ‘chanced’ to come upon a ‘wandering’ giraffe. Thus he saw his booty, and order was preserved.4

These early Chinese voyages preceded the European ones by half a century or more, but lacked serious motivation (read: greed). The Chinese court found the voyages inordinately costly, and not only never followed up, but banned further oceanic exploration. Thus the first Chinese vessel to sail around Africa into the Atlantic went in 1850–1851 to attend the Great Exposition in London. That was three hundred and fifty years after the first Portuguese vessels found their way into Chinese ports – one more evidence of the Chinese indifference to outsiders and opportunity.

Chinese contempt for most Western things has been traditionally summed up in the dismissive letter (rescript) of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–1795) to George III of Great Britain, rejecting the British request of 1793 for trading rights and a permanent legation in Peking: “We have never set much store on strange and ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.” The Europeans in an earlier period had certainly learned from China; the Chinese of the eighteenth century did not feel they had anything to learn.

The easy availability of good timekeeping instruments, at least to those who could afford them, reinforced the general interest in and pursuit of time. These instruments also provided endless opportunities for obsessive behavior.

The examples are many, and all of us know friends and acquaintances who pursue precision and promptness as a source of comfort and achievement. Let me offer an example from history: Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, heir to the great German steel and armaments fortune, king of the family castle, worshiper of efficiency, concentration, above all, punctuality.

In a nation of clock-watchers, Gustav stood out. Breakfast at the castle was served exactly at 07:15 hours, and the guest who arrived a minute late found the doors locked. That morning meal was set to last fifteen minutes, when Gustav went out to his carriage or, from 1908, his limousine. The moment his feet left the ground, the vehicle took off.

He kept a schedule book listing each day’s engagements by the minute, including just so much time to prepare and verify the next day’s schedule. Fifty minutes were allocated to dinner, unless there were guests, in which case dinner went precisely to 21:45. Then thirty minutes for evening toilette and small talk, and he and Bertha slipped into bed and dutiful union at 22:15.

By the same token, fixed times were reserved for play with the children. The favorite toy was a railroad, with its own schedules, which Gustav supervised with stopwatch in hand. Lunch guests were not allowed to come in their own cars; they or their chauffeurs might be late. They were fetched by Krupp drivers, who brought them to the castle at 13:29. A minute later they entered the reception room to chat, then sat to table at 13:40. The moment Gustav finished a course, all plates were removed. Slow eaters gave up what was left. Meal over at 14:15, coffee at 14:29. The coffee was served at a pre-set temperature, never too hot. Gustav felt that a craving for warmth was a sign of weakness, and yielding to one weakness would encourage others. At 14:30 precisely, guests stepped into the waiting limos and were whisked away.5

The contributions of mechanical timekeepers to sailing and navigation were spectacular, with major gains to route selection and related economies.6 To land transport as well, particularly with the coming of the railroad. Less obvious initially was the gain to industry and manufacturing, particularly as a measure and test of performance and productivity. These were activities, after all, that proceeded in accord with human, traditional work rhythms, the more so as wages were often calculated by the piece, and buyers and employers had little or no advantage in speeding the work.

The adoption of mass-production techniques, however, changed the nature of labor performance and the principles of remuneration. The coordination of tasks made all the difference. Now it was important, nay crucial, to assign the work and provide the equipment in such ways as to permit smooth and uninterrupted progress – to clear space and bring tools and materiel to the right places at the right time. Also – and this was essential to wise decision-making – to measure and compare the relative productivity of one arrangement as against another. The ever-present stopwatch was the key to gains and costs.

The pioneer here was Henry Ford. He was a firm believer in the moral virtue of democratic transport and mass production, of cheap cars for the multitude. The flivver showed the way. And the demand for Model T’s kept growing apace: 18,664 cars in 1909–1910, 34,528 in 1910–1911, 78,440 in 1911–1912. Some way had to be found to increase output without inflating prices, in short, to increase productivity. One technique was to move toward interchangeable parts. Henry and his engineers were constantly on the lookout for more accurate and precise machine tools, aiming at tolerances of one ten-thousandth of an inch. Any time they found a better tool, they scrapped all the old ones. The managers grimaced with pain, but went along because the boss and the engineers wanted it that way. In two years, by 1910, the careful filing and adjustment of inaccurate parts were done away with.

A second major innovation was the simplification and routinization of tasks, thanks to the use of a moving assembly line. The old way was to bring the workers to the work; now they brought the work to the workers. This process developed in three stages. First, teams of assemblers moved from fixed chassis to fixed chassis, or assemblers simply stayed with their chassis while others brought them tools and parts as needed. Average time (stopwatches had become indispensable tools): twelve and a half man-hours per chassis. Then came line production: a rope or cable winch pulled the chassis along while teams of assemblers moved with it, picking up parts from bins strategically placed along the way – jerky, irregular progress. Average time: 5 man-hours, 50 minutes. Then workers were placed in carefully calculated stationary positions along the way, while the moving chassis ran along at waist height and overhead carriers and gravity slides brought subassemblies as needed. Best time: 93 minutes. Henry rejoiced: “Save ten steps a day for each of 12,000 employees, and you will have saved fifty miles of wasted motion and mis-spent energy.”7 Output more than doubled in 1912–1913 and doubled again the next year, while the workforce actually fell.

Henry Ford, with the aid of a remarkable team of collaborators, had thus effected a revolution in production technology. In his autobiographical essay, My Life and Work, Henry conveys the impression that all the ideas and techniques went from him down. Nevins and Hill, observing the process from beyond and after, find this simplification erroneous: “seminal ideas moved from the bottom upward.”8 They stress the accidents of shrewd hiring; the readiness of Henry and supervisors to give gifted men their head; above all, the willingness to experiment (always using watches).

To be sure, the new technology posed a problem to labor morale. The work was dull and thus fatiguing, and the constant pressure to raise productivity pushed effort to ever-higher limits. Henry Ford’s answer was to introduce a record daily wage. He did not want to base wages on output (piece wages) – the prevalent Detroit method – because he felt that productivity gains came from above; also because the Ford company was changing methods and procedures too fast to permit appropriate and timely recalculations. And of course, once the assembly line was introduced, piece wages would not have made sense: it was the speed of the line that set the level of output. But Henry wanted to be able to recruit a diligent, reliable workforce eager for high pay. The answer, voted January 1914, was the $5 day, two to three times the prevalent level. Not right away, of course: workers had to put in six months of training and adaptation at base-pay $2.34 before the new level kicked in as an implicitly conditional profit-sharing bonus.

Nothing did more than this pay raise to enhance Ford’s reputation as a statesman of industry and a model of employer wisdom and generosity. Newspapers all over the country carried the story, and would-be workers lined up outside the factory gates by the thousands, far beyond the hiring possibilities of even an exploding company. One newspaper headline went so far as to invoke divine benediction: “God Bless Henry Ford.”

It goes without saying that these methods were copyable and much copied. That has always been the supreme advantage of modern techniques of time measurement: the instruments are relatively cheap and widely applicable.

I would not want simply to say that time measurement and the mechanical clock made the modern world and gave the West primacy over the Rest. That they did.

But the clock in turn was part of a larger open, competitive Western attitude toward knowledge, science, and exploration. Nothing like this attitude was to be found elsewhere. Attitude and theme came together, and we have all been the beneficiaries, including those civilizations and societies that are now learning and catching up.

Vive l’heure! Et vive l’horloge!


1 Dai Sijie, Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).

2 In Isabelle and Jean-Louis Vissière, eds., Lettres édifiantes et curieuses des Jésuites de Chine 1702–1776 (Paris: Éditions Desjonquères, 2001), 180–188; based on the edition of 1819.

3 Recent literature has credited China with wider navigational and exploratory priority, for example Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (New York: William Morrow & Co., 2003). John Noble Wilford’s review in The New York Times Book Review of 2 February 2003 questions Menzies’ evidence, but he would have done better to ask, So what?

4 A parallel version of this story is told of King Louis XIV of France, like the emperor of China a ruler of unlimited pretensions. Which version came first, I do not know. To this day, the French are the self-styled representatives of higher civilization in a world of lesser specimens.

5 On all this and more, see William Manchester, The Arms of Krupp (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), 251–254.

6 See William J. H. Andrewes, ed., The Quest for Longitude (Cambridge, Mass.: Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, 1996).

7 Ibid., 109.

8 Allan Nevins with the collaboration of Frank Ernest Hill, Ford, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1954–1963), 474.