In 1983, the Harvard economic historian David Landes wrote an influential book called Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. There, he argued that timepieces (more than steamships and power looms) drove the economic development of the West, leading it into the Industrial Revolution and eventually into an advanced form of capitalism. Timepieces allowed us to measure time in accurate, uniform ways. And, once we had that ability, we began to look at the way we live and work quite differently. Landes wrote:
“The mechanical clock was self-contained, and once horologists learned to drive it by means of a coiled spring rather than a falling weight, it could be miniaturized so as to be portable, whether in the household or on the person. It was this possibility of widespread private use that laid the basis for ‘time discipline,’ as against ‘time obedience.’ One can … use public clocks to simon people for one purpose or another; but that is not punctuality. Punctuality comes from within, not from without. It is the mechanical clock that made possible, for better or worse, a civilization attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance.”
It’s all part of the logic that eventually gets us to Benjamin Franklin offering this famous piece of advice to a young tradesman, in 1748, “Remember that Time is Money.”
You can find similar arguments at the core of this newly-released video called “A Briefer History of Time: How technology changes us in unexpected ways.” The video brings us back to the 1650s — to a turning point when Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, which remained the world’s most precise and widespread timekeeping device for the next three centuries. He wasn’t alone. But certainly Huygens did much to make us masters of time. And certainly also slaves to it.