By David Rooney

Penguin Books 2022

ISBN: 978 0 241 37051 3

RRP: $22.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


In Lewis Carroll’s classic story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, time is a key player. The white rabbit that lures Alice down the rabbit hole into a world where reality is so often turned on its head is rushing to an appointment and looking at his pocket watch, moaning that he is running late. At the Mad Hatter’s tea party it is always 6pm because the Hatter is trying to kill time. And, amid an hilarious exchange involving double meanings, Alice speaks of beating time, the Hatter accuses her of never having spoken to time and the Queen is recalled as accusing the March Hare of “murdering time” while reciting verse. Time, it would seem, is so much part of our lives it has become an old friend or even an enemy. In other literature, we have images of Father Time and the sands of time charting the passing of each human’s existence.

David Rooney’s About TimeA History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks is an intricate and panoramic look at how humankind has grappled with the measurement and management of time over millennia. This former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich has produced a page turner, one that unlocks vistas of human development and endeavour in fresh ways and riveting storytelling. There are the Roman Empire’s sundials looted from enemies in war, clocktowers staring down on the citizens of Imperial Britain in India, Al-Jazari’s castle clock of 1206, Strasbourg’s Cathedral’s huge astronomical and automaton clock of 1574 and Jai Singh’s monumental 0sundial at Jaipur and his heroic attempts with his observatory to bring east and west together in the cause of science and horology in the eighteenth century. David Rooney’s study is an exhilarating ride through time.

From the earliest sundials to atomic clocks and GPS technology, time and mankind have been locked in an eternal partnership. For, as much as humans have managed time, more and more, time dominates and dictates human life. And it has inspired artistic treasures such as Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1338 figure of Temperance holding the hourglass in the fabulous wall murals in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, or the figure of Death and its hourglass at the tomb of Henri-Claude d’Harcourt in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or, as Rooney tells it, in Hans Holbein’s “depictions of the Dance of Death, made in about 1525 and published in 1538, that pressed the hourglass firmly into the bony hand of a skeletal, ever-present, grinning, almost gleeful Death”.

Keeping or measuring time was from its earliest manifestations a public service with large time pieces dominating public squares or central hubs. These became symbolic of civic pride and local identity along with a sense of order. Time and order form a natural fit. As Alice says, she beat time in her music, and soldiers march to time in military displays. With the industrial age, clockmaking and clock ownership, watch making and watch ownership formed a central part of life. Clocks in all their decorative and functional manifestations ornamented well-established homes, offices, institutions and civic halls; watches, expensive or modest, were to be found in the personal kit of millions.

But, as Rooney makes clear, time plays a far bigger role than simply enabling individuals to keep appointments. Time has dominated the world of scientific discovery forever, enabling empires, underpinning trade and commerce, guiding navigation and exploration of the globe as well as the accuracy of ballistic missiles, supporting various civilizations’ moral codes and dictates, and helping rival powers outsmart each other. What Rooney has achieved in this remarkable study is to pierce the relationship between humanity and its destinies, and time. The history of one is impossible without the other.

Taking up a central theme of his history, Rooney begins his exploration of time and commerce in Amsterdam in 1614. He writes: “If markets are the key mechanisms of global capitalism, clocks are the key machines of markets. Capitalism is an arms race of timing, and clocks make markets work more than ever before.” As he points out, it is hard to find an historical depiction of a stock exchange or bank without a clock prominently in view. With the expansion of global trade, centres of commerce in the old world – in the Netherlands or Britain for example – centralising trading markets was the key.

Standardising time soon became essential. And, with markets, came trade and empires. As far back as 1675, King Charles II founded the Greenwich Observatory which a couple of centuries later would become the foundation of the world’s time as Greenwich Mean Time. Rooney points out that in establishing the observatory, Charles wanted Britain to take over the world, such was time keeping and its control a force for wealth.

Without a doubt, the key to empire navigation success and European discovery of unknown parts of the globe, was the chronometer and, with it, the discovery of ways to measure longitude. Writes Rooney, “Time keepers and chronometers kept empires afloat.” In the great imperial age, whoever commanded the sea commanded world trade.

Chronometres – highly accurate time keepers that could calculate longitude – were first developed by John Harrison in the 1750s. Using a ship-board chronometer, however, required its checking and setting to correct time when in port. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, being so perilous, Cape Town soon became a crucial checkpoint where a cannon was fired at noon from a battery on the castle. The Cape observatory followed, built and maintained using local slave labour and opened in 1820 by the British who had taken the Cape from the Dutch. Europe now had a reliable gateway to the east.

The words of Walter Raleigh that “whoever commands the sea … commands the riches of the world itself’ were truly given meaning with the invention and use of chronometers, made possible by an ingenious method of measuring time using the moon and stars. Over two centuries, leaders starting with Philip II of Spain had thrown money at research to find a way for ships to calculate time at sea. And, more accurately, their positions. It had taken a British prize fund in the early 1800s to find the answer – the winners had developed the chronometer, the sextant and the nautical almanac. What followed was some of the greatest sea navigation and mapping of the earth, along with the genesis of the British Empire.

The imperial age linked the globe in ways unimagined and this, in turn, brought on scientific discovery into ways to more precisely measure time and use it to automatically power machines used for all manner of purposes from guiding the trajectories of ballistic weapons to switching lights on and off. Atomic clocks orbiting the earth now operate GPS signals used by the great and not so great across the globe. Time has enabled centres of power which in turn has generated wars which in turn have led to the development of the sophisticated technology of our present day.

Time now rules human behaviour as never before – from the industrial age and regulation of hours of work through daylight saving changing our daily functioning from sleeping to recreating, with bombs timed to detonate remotely striking terror into the lives of citizens and on to dependence on a GPS to find a destination are just a fraction of the possible examples. Big Ben symbolises Britain in countless images online, in televised programs and in the imagination of millions. A hundred satellites orbit our planet beaming precise time signals to Earth from around 300 miniature clocks.

About Time is an engrossing and fascinating story capturing human history from new angles, albeit timeless in the rhythms of human destiny. Take away the froth of the new, writes Rooney, and there is a consistency of themes. But what links them all is the history of time itself, as David Rooney has so skilfully and delightfully described.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.