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Clocks Conquer the World

October 21, 2003

A public radio commentary

As you change your clock for daylight savings time, take a good look at it: Its the tool Western Europeans used to conquer the world.

A clock? Conquer the world? Yes. The power to measure time helped turn the backward 9th century tribes of Europe into the powerhouses of the world. Europe trailed other regions badly in the 9th century: Western Europeans ruled the world: Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands had huge empires. And by the 19th century Western Europe's domination reached its apex in Queen Victoria's empire.

How did these backward 9th century Europeans accomplish all this? The obvious answer is "science and technology", but I've learned from historians that there is a more specific answer - one that warms my engineer's heart - and that is numbers.

The West brought together mathematics and measurement to record reality, and thus the power to control it. And this brings us to clocks. Clocks were the first way Europeans quantified the world. The chime of the town clock chopped the day into numbered segments; calling out the time to start or stop trading, or go to church. This was a sharp contrast to days marked only by dawn and sunset. Quantification spread to all aspects of life.

Numbers affected music, armies, art and navigation. The free form Gregorian chants of the 9th century gave way to music with a rich meter controlled by a clock. And it was a short step from regimented music to powerful Armies. The political philosopher Machiavelli noted this: Just as a dancing man keeping "time with the music, cannot make a false step; so an army that properly observes the beat of the drums cannot easily be disordered."

And mathematics allowed people to divide space into numbers, giving them maps overflowing with compass bearings, tide tables, and even the times pirates might be expected. These number-laden maps guided sailors across the seas to conquer new worlds. Bookkeepers armed with numbers followed the sailors. They used double-entry bookkeeping to control commerce, industry and government. Double-entry bookkeeping doesn't sound like a world-changing event, yet it allowed a merchant to "picture" the reality of his or her business.

The poet Auden summed up the result of all these numbers for the West: We live in societies "to which the study of that which can be weighed and measured is a consuming love."

Not to me: Tomorrow my alarm clock will screech and command me to divide my day into bits and pieces, but when I rise, I probably won't feel like following my Western heritage and conquering the world.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises