The first major technical description of clocks is found in Book 9 of Vitruvio’s De Architecture. It is important to highlight the absence of clocks in Book 10 of this work, which is dedicated exclusively to machines and their application to the cosmological themes dealt with in Book 9.
According to Vitruvio, machines are ‘a collection of wooden pieces that permit the movement of big weights’, which are operated mechanically and have a practical use when it comes to reducing efforts.
However, in a world that has already been formed, clocks do not aim to reduce efforts but to gather the fruits of what has prospered in it. The movement of these machines emulates the regular movement of the cosmos, which enables human orientation with respect to food and agriculture.
The original and oldest known clock was the sundial known as gnomon. It consisted of a stick or shaft, which cast a shadow onto the dial depending of the time of the day. In his study of the Nuer, Evans-Pritchard shows good examples of chronometric time, which are not based on the sundial model; they are what the writer calls ‘clock-cattle’. “I will be back in time to milk the animals” or “I will depart when the calves are back” or “The cattle are grazing in the field” are examples of this model explained in his book. These references can be translated to our way of measuring time as “It is approximately 6.15”. For example, in Madagascar, half an hour is indicated by the time it takes rice to cook. All these examples of measuring time chronometrically show how difficult it is to separate time from the actions that take place within it.
The advantages of the gnomonic system over other systems relate to the observation of skies. This permits measurement of time on earth, with the aim of measuring aspects such as the irregular length of hours during different seasons, or astronomical events like the spring equinox.
The age-old chronometric perception of time, based on the gnomonic system, is not sufficient to understand the world itself, to organize it and take control of it. As early as the 1st century B.C., the technical advancement of clepsydra or water clocks allowed the measurement of time during the night. This permitted the uniform division of days and nights by establishing 24 hours of identical length. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the measurement of Day and Night was standardized.
The Tower of Winds – the most important clock in Ancient Greece, dating back to the 1st century B.C. – is a perfect example of this. It was the first system to combine sundials and water clocks with the aim of reflecting the passing of time on cloudy days or in overcast conditions. The advantage of this timepiece is that, due to the presence of the water clock, it enables the equal division of time. Unlike the sundial, the water clock established the exact division of a day into equal and abstract hours, rather than hours that fluctuated depending on the season.
Nevertheless, the integration of Day and Night hours within an abstract continuum did not arrive until later on, although the Tower of Winds technically allowed for this to happen.
The true concept of chronometric time appears with the mechanical clock, which did not measure time as per the dynamic natural cycles and was not dependent on the sundial (calendar).
In the Middle Ages, the mechanical clock was a machine consisting of three elements – a crown, a shaft and a ‘foliot’ – which enabled a continuous flow of movement without depending on external sources of energy. The only difference between this time device and previous ones is the introduction of the ‘foliot’ or escapement mechanism.
The first mechanical clocks to incorporate an entire escapement mechanism were designed by Wallingford (1343) and Giovanni Dondi (1364). It should be noted that these mechanisms existed previously and are not defining features. In fact, the measurement of time was the same and still depended on external factors, as both clocks are far from being chronometers; instead, they are representations of the cosmos. They are known as the ‘planetary clock’ (Dondi) or ‘astronomical clock’ (Wallingford).
The mechanical clock and the escapement mechanism (earth timekeeping device), which makes it function, would be unthinkable without taking into account a new understanding of reality, from which all the rhythms of the world can be unified within an abstract continuum. However, in order to establish this equal division of time, we needed a new way of understanding reality, which already counted with the technical means to do so like the Tower of Winds, although this understanding was missing at that time.
The need for the constant measurement of chronometric time was still not present in the lives of the men who introduced this method in the 19th century. The question is, when was the understanding of terrestrial chronometry – independent of the skies – born? The answer could not be more contradictory, as this system was not born on land, but at Sea. It emerged with the necessity to measure time accurately, a feature that had been lacking in mechanical clocks until that time.
The origin of the precise measurement of time is not related to the desire to accurately pinpoint the events that take place in our lives. The first broadly accurate chronometer was created in 1759 by the carpenter and clock-maker John Harrison.
It was the result of a competition to calculate longitude at sea, which was organised by Anne, Queen of England to prevent the shipwrecks in North Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries caused by errors in fixating the correct longitude.
At last, by solving the issue of longitude, we gained an understanding of the relevance of measuring time with respect to our physical orientation in space.
The problem of location whilst at sea emerges when the reference of the coastline, the compass and the skies is not enough to measure time. The Portolan charts (a huge collection of empirical data) were sufficient to navigate in familiar seas but not to discover the new world. It became clear that this navigation system was not capable of orientating between two points of the ocean without a reference point.
Men need to represent space and time in an abstract way in order to broaden the human capacity to tackle these abstract realities related to uncertainty and neutrality.
The abstract representation of space using the meridian and parallel charts described in Geographia by Ptolomeo (2nd century) was the orientation system used by ships daring to cross the oceans far away from the land. The North-South Latitude scale is an easy method that has been well known since ancient times; however, the East-West Longitude scale does not have natural limits like the North Pole-South Pole-Equator Latitude.
Given the undetermined nature of our location, the only possibility of orientation in longitude is by calculating space as a time function. Thus, if the Earth takes 24 hours to completely rotate (360 degrees), it rotates 15 degrees of longitude per hour, which means that each degree of longitude corresponds to 4 minutes. For this reason, looking at the skies to orientate ourselves in time is no longer useful as we encounter the problem of longitude.
The first accurate clock was created by determining longitude – that is to say, the problem of human orientation in infinite space – and represents mankind’s victory over one of the last symbols of fundamental chaotic neutrality, the sea.
Man only sets sail from a fully formed, familiar and natural terrestrial world with the aim of discovering new land, that is to say, with the aim of creating a world from the completely foreign and chaotic unknown.
The origin of chronometric accuracy in relation to its marine beginnings and its later earthly application creates a significant change in its essence. Accurate clocks become a dilemma in the sense that they become machines for controlling mankind.
Nowadays, it is men who move quicker; men are the ones who find the need to set time both at the point of departure and at the point of arrival in relation to their travelling time. The relationship between space and time has been completely reversed; we have gone from using time to determine a physical point in the sea to setting time according to the different terrestrial points.
The only solution to improve the damage created by the application of terrestrial chronometric accuracy was the standardization of time, which was suggested by railway engineer Sandford Fleming in 1884 during the International Meridian Conference where he proposed a universal time by establishing Greenwich as the standard time.
Slowly but continuously, mankind ‘gains time through movement’. This expression does not refer to developments in covering larger distances in less time, but rather to the fact that man spends more time on the move. The man who is on the move is neither at home, nor at work, nor at a party; he is in a non-place, in a non-time.
Movement creates new places and new rhythms, which are very different from those known places and rhythms of olden times.
In today’s fluid and changeable world, where man does not remain in a single and precise place, but instead continuously moves, the concepts of non-time and non-place arise as a new area of habitability.
The time has come to leave behind the common understanding of time, the Aristotelian concept of time found in physics: ‘For time is just this-number of motion in respect of 'before' and 'after'.’
So, what is time? What does it mean to look at the time?
Looking at the time means knowing how much time I have left, how much time I have to do this or that; it is ‘time for’. In this context, man becomes pure potential, as he needs to ‘count on time’ in order to do something. This ‘counting’ does not refer to numbers but to taking the time into account, to being right there, right now – to existing.
Why is there a suggestion of a clock that does not set the time?
Eliminating the numerical aspect of clocks aims at disabling this time-keeping device which keeps control on society, that is not say, defeating the modern man or robot, the individual who does not have time to stop for useless things, the one who is deemed to become a machine with no soul.