The Clockwork Self and the Horological Revolution

  • Adam Max Cohen


When a fourth technology was added to the early modern trinity of gunpowder, the printing press, and the compass, that fourth technology was usually the mechanical clock. In early modern England clocks and watches symbolized the inventiveness of humankind, the divine design of the universe, and modernity’s superiority over classical and medieval civilization.1 Lewis Mumford has claimed that the clock has always held pride of place in Europe’s technological pantheon:

For every phase of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of the machine ....In its relationship to determinable quantities of energy, to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product, accurate timing, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics: and at each period it has remained in the lead: it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire.2


Sixteenth Century Dead Reckoning Early Modern Period Mechanical Clock Divine Creation 
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  1. 1.
    For more on the clock’s symbolic resonances see Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 ), p. 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization ( New York: HBJ, 1962 ), pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See, e.g., David Landes, A Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983 );Google Scholar
  4. Rossum, The History of the Hour. Richard Quinones’s The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972) began as a doctoral dissertation on time consciousness in Shakespeare’s plays, but it evolved into a broader study of the ways in which time consciousness appears in the works of a variety of early modern authors, including Shakespeare.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See, e.g., Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 ).Google Scholar
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    One notable exception is a discussion of Shakespeare’s clock metaphors in Samuel L. Macey, Clocks and the Cosmos: Time in Western Life and Thought ( Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1980 ), pp. 123–143.Google Scholar
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    F. J. Britten, Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers, 7th ed. ( London: E. & F. N. Spon, 1956 ), p. 22.Google Scholar
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    E. G. R. Taylor, The Mathematical Practitioners of Tudor and Stuart England ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954 ), p. 339.Google Scholar
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    See Carlo Cipolla, Clocks and Culture, 1300–1700 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 49. Antonio Simoni has argued that smaller weight-driven chamber clocks may have preceded the larger turret clocks in cathedrals, but this is a minority view (Antonio Simoni, Orologi italiani dal cinquecento all-ottocento [Milan: Antonio Vallardi, 1965], pp. 16–17).Google Scholar
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    See James Francis Kendal, A History of Watches and Other Timekeepers ( London: Crosby Lockwood, 1892 ), p. 63.Google Scholar
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    Samuel Elliot Atkins and William Henry Overall, Some account of the worshipful Company of Clockmakers of the City of London (London: Blades, East, and Blades, 1881), pp. 1–2. Britten confirms that Elizabeth’s reign saw the critical manufacturing shift (p. 14).Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    Pisan, L’Epître d’Othéa, in Otto Mayr, Authority, Liberty, and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986 ), p. 35.Google Scholar
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    See John Heywood, A Dialog of Proverbs, ed. Rudolph Habenicht (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1963), p. 147; and R. Harvey, Plaine percevall (ca. 1590), pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
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    Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 175. Shakespeare’s contemporaries also noted the plasticity of time. Robert Greene has a character claim, “The Usurer’s Clock is the swiftest clock in the town” (Robert Greene, A Looking Glass for London and England [ 1592 ], 2. 2 ).Google Scholar

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© Adam Max Cohen 2006

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  • Adam Max Cohen

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