Stop all those clocks

We've got better at telling time, but now it's a private affair.

Big Ben will not sound for the next four weeks or so. The 14-tonne hour-bell is taking a main tenance break. The four faces of the clock at the Palace of Westminster will still display the time, but the bongs that are broadcast around the globe and make Big Ben the most famous timepiece in the world will be silent.

The loss of an audible reminder of the time might once have caused consternation. But today Big Ben's silence may hardly be noticed. We no longer rely on public signals to order our day. Fewer town-hall clocks or church bells ring out the hours and quarter-hours. Factories no longer sound sirens to summon and dismiss workers. The boast of the wartime song that everything stops for tea when the clock strikes four makes no sense in a world where there is no shared tea break and no chiming clock on the mantelpiece.

The one place we might miss a clock today is at a railway station, which, appropriately, is where public timekeeping began. There was no official national time until the advent of rail in the mid-19th century and the need to timetable trains. For most purposes, it wasn't important to know precisely what the time was; only to have ways of knowing when other people were doing things. Thus, church bells summoned congregations to prayers at intervals spaced imprecisely according to the will of the pastor. What did that matter, so long as the congregation turned up together?

Clocks with hour hands had existed from the 15th century (originally the numbered dial moved round a static hour hand) but even if two of you possessed one of these marvellous inventions, you would hardly rely on it to arrange a meeting. Not until the late 18th century were minute hands introduced. The precise measurement of time was a gentleman scientist's hobby.

Even when accurate timekeeping became available to households and individuals, time remained on public display with clocks in town centres, on municipal buildings and on the frontages of many shops. And there were the sirens. Into the Sixties, my family was woken at seven each morning by a blast from the Lancing railway works hooter, a good mile away. No one ever complained about this enforced reveille inflicted on thousands of Sussex citizens.

Now, in our 24/7 economy, people live by their own schedules (or their children's). Your day may be regulated to the last second, but your timetables are individual to you. Your neighbours' will almost certainly be quite different.

Wristwatches, mobile phones and personal computers remind us individually of the passing minutes. People take courses in time management. Since time is money, we keep track of it ourselves. Our experience of time has become personal rather than public. We barely share an audible tick-tock.

Time has become silent and individual where once it was noisy and public. Big Ben's gran diosely broadcast bongs are, we might say, a glorious anachronism.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time