University of Cincinnati The Monastery and the Clock Discussion

Write a reflection paper of no fewer than 1 1/2 pages in length (12 point font, double spaced) on: The Monastery and the Clock in the attached Mumford article. You must utilize this required reading for credit. Include a full bibliography. The assigned reading is attached below.

The Monastery and the Clock
Where did the machine first take form in modern civilization? There was plainly more
than one point of origin. Our mechanical civilization represents the convergence of numerous
habits, ideas, and modes of living, as’ well as technical instruments; and some of these were, in
the beginning, directly opposed to the civilization they helped to create. But the first
manifestation of the new order took place in the general picture of the world: during the first
seven centuries of the machine’s existence the categories of time and space underwent an
extraordinary change, and no aspect of life was left untouched by this transformation. The
application of quantitative methods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestation in
the regular measurement of time; and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of
the routine of the monastery. Alfred Whitehead has emphasized the importance of the scholastic
belief in a universe ordered by God as one of the foundations of modern physics: but behind that
belief was the presence of order in the institutions of the Church itself.
The technics of the ancient world were still carried on from Constantinople and Baghdad
to Sicily and Cordova: hence the early lead taken by Salerno in the scientific and medical
advances of the Middle Age. It was, however, in the monasteries of the West that the desire for
order and power, other than that expressed in the military domination of weaker men, first
manifested itself after the long uncertainty and bloody confusion that attended the breakdown of
the Roman Empire. Within the walls of the monastery was sanctuary: under the rule of the order
surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay. Opposed to the erratic
fluctuations and pulsations of the worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule. Benedict added
a seventh period to the devotions of the day, and in the seventh century, by a bull of Pope
Sabinianus, it was decreed that the bells of the monastery be rung seven times in the twenty-four
hours. These punctuation marks in the day were known as the canonical hours, and some means
of keeping count of them and ensuring their regular repetition became necessary.
According to a now discredited legend, the first modern mechanical clock, worked by
falling weights, was invented by the monk named Gerbert who afterwards became Pope
Sylvester II near the close of the tenth century. This clock was probably only a water clock, one
of those bequests of the ancient world either left over directly from the days of the Romans, like
the waterwheel itself, or coming back again into the West through the Arabs. But the legend, as
so often happens, is accurate in its implications if not in its facts. The monastery was the seat of a
regular life, and an instrument for striking the hours at intervals or for reminding the bell-ringer
that it was time to strike the bells, was an almost inevitable product of this life. If the
mechanical clock did not appear until the cities of the thirteenth century demanded an orderly
routine, the habit of order itself and the earnest regulation of time-sequences bad become almost
second nature in the monastery. Coulton agrees with Sombart in looking upon the Benedictines,
the great working order, as perhaps the original founders of modem capitalism: their rule
certainly took the curse off work and their vigorous engineering enterprises may even have
robbed warfare of some of its glamour. So one is not straining the facts when one suggests that
the monasteries at one time there were 40,000 under the Benedictine rule-helped to give human
enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a
means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.
Was it by reason of the collective Christian desire to provide for the welfare of souls in
eternity by regular prayers and devotions that time-keeping and the habits of temporal order took
hold of men’s minds- habits that capitalist civilization presently turned to good account? One
must perhaps accept the irony of this paradox. At all events, by the thirteenth century there are
definite records of mechanical clocks, and by 1370 a well-designed “modem” clock had been
built by Heinrich von Wyck at Paris. Meanwhile, bell towers had come into existence, and the
new clocks, if they did not have, till the fourteenth century, a dial and a band that translated the
movement of time into a movement through space, at all events struck the hours. The clouds that
could paralyze the sundial, the freezing that could stop the water clock on a winter night, were no
longer obstacles to time-keeping: summer or winter, day or night, one was aware of the
measured clank of the clock. The instrument presently spread outside the monastery; and the
regular striking of the bells brought a new regularity into the life of the workman and the
merchant. The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence. Time keeping passed into
time – serving and time-accounting and time-rationing. As this took place, Eternity ceased
gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.
The clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. For
every phase of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of
the machine: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous. Here, at the very beginning of
modem technics, appeared prophetically the accurate automatic machine which, only after
centuries of further effort, was also to prove the final consummation of this technics in every
department of industrial activity. There had been power-machines, such as the water-mill, before
the clock; and there had also been various kinds of automata, to awaken the wonder of the
populace in the temple, or to please the idle fancy of some Moslem caliph: machines one finds
illustrated in Hero and Al-Jazari. But here was a new kind of power-machine, in which the
source of power and the transmission were of such a nature as to ensure the even flow of energy
throughout the works and to make possible regular production and a standardized product. 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. The clock, moreover, served as a model for many other kinds of
mechanical works, and the analysis of motion that accompanied the perfection of the clock, with
the various types of gearing and transmission that were elaborated, contributed to the success of
quite different kinds of machine. Smiths could have hammered thou sands of suits of armor or
thousands of iron cannon, wheelwrights could have shaped thousands of great water-wheels or
crude gears, without inventing any of the special types of movement developed in clockwork,
and without any of the accuracy of measurement and fineness of articulation that finally
produced the accurate eighteenth century chronometer.
The clock, moreover, is a piece of power-machinery whose “produce’ is seconds and
minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the
belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of
science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience:
throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between
day and night steadily-change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by
a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even
more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of
the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days,
time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures
from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the
harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and
but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a
succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time–what Bergson calls duration-is
cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run
backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in
only one direction-through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death-and the
past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.
Around 1345, according to Thorndike, the division of hours into sixty minutes and of
minutes into sixty seconds became common. it was this abstract framework of divided time that
became more and more the point of reference for both action and thought, and in the effort to
arrive at accuracy in this department, the astronomical exploration of the sky focused attention
further upon the regular, implacable movements of the heavenly bodies through space. Early in
the sixteenth century a young Nuremberg mechanic, Peter Henlein, is supposed to have created
“many-wheeled watches out of small bits of iron” and by the end of the century the small
domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. As with the motor car and the
airplane, the richer classes first took over the new mechanism and popularized it: partly because
they alone could afford it partly because the new bourgeoisie were the first to discover that, as
Franklin later put it, “time is money.” To become “as regular as clock- work” was the bourgeois
ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success. The increasing tempo of
civilization led to a demand for greater power: and in turn power quickened the tempo.
Now, the orderly punctual life that first took shape in the monasteries is not native to
mankind, although by now Western peoples are so thoroughly regimented by the clock that it is
“second nature” and they look upon its observance as a fact of nature. Many Eastern civilizations
have flourished on a loose basis in time: the Hindus have in fact been so indifferent to time that
they lick even an authentic chronology of the years. Only yesterday, in the midst of the
industrializations of Soviet Russia, did a society come into existence to further the carrying of
watches there and to propagandize the benefits of punctuality. The popularization of timekeeping, which followed the production of the cheap standardized watch, first in Geneva, then in
America around the middle of the last century, was essential to a well-articulated system of
transportation and production.
To keep time was once a peculiar attribute of music- it gave industrial value to the
workshop song or the tattoo or the chantey of the sailors tugging at a rope. But the effect of the
mechanical clock is more pervasive and strict: it presides over the day from the hour of rising to
the hour of rest. When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed
with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric
lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence
of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and
saving time come into existence. Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be
divided, it could be filled up, it could even fie expanded by the invention of labor-saving
Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were
regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not
when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time- consciousness
accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences, it became easier
for the men of the Renascence to indulge the fantasy of reviving the classic past or of reliving the
splendors of antique Roman civilization: the cult of history, a4earing first in daily ritual, finally
abstracted itself as a special discipline. In the seventeenth century journalism and periodic
literature made their appearance: even in dress, following the lead of Venice as fashion-center,
people altered styles every year rather than every generation.
The gain in mechanical efficiency through co-ordination and through the closer
articulation of the day’s events cannot be over- estimated: while this increase cannot be measured
in mere horsepower, one has only to imagine its absence today to foresee the speedy disruption
and eventual collapse of our entire society. The modern industrial r6gime could do without coal
and iron and steam easier than it could do without the clock.

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