Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
The clock brought order, and rigidity, to the world.
Time has changed in the last 1,000 years, from an abundant, undifferentiated flow to a finite, disputed commodity. The clock as we know it was probably invented shortly after 1275, though the all-important minute hand didn't come along until the late 1500s. Before the mechanical clock, there were sundials and water clocks, but they weren't much good at night or when the sky was cloudy. How could you tell when it was 3 a.m.? Monks needed to know, because of their fixed devotional hours. The workday was determined by light; in Paris, tanners worked until two coins of similar appearance but different denomination could no longer be told apart. All measurements were vague and subjective then - an inch was the width of my thumb, which was not the same as yours - but time was the most indeterminate category of all. The calendar was equally fluid. For a long time Venice and Florence did not observe the same year. Even literate nobles dated their letters by the year of the king's reign. Few people had more than a rough idea of their own age. The mechanical clock, a complex contrivance of toothed wheels and weights, began what was to be a long and laborious process of standardisation as the world slowly agreed to hold certain conventions in common, like time zones. (Less than a century ago, noon in New York fell a bit after noon in Hartford and a bit before noon in Newark.)
In this clocklike sculpture built by Arthur Ganson, an engineer, inventor and artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, time runs on an electric motor. But it is the gears, pulleys and springs that direct the nervous dance of the figures on top. As we learned to master time, the sculpture reminds us, we also fell under its yoke.
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