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Revolution in Time: clocks and the making of the modern world

David S Landes <em>Viking, 518pp, £1

David Landes, perhaps best known for his recent The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, has revised this earlier work, which was originally published in the US in 1983. It is as much a study of the changing concepts of time as it is of how the invention of mechanical clocks and watches transformed Europe. Landes deals masterly with the difficult scientific and technological questions that had to be resolved by those able to imagine what such a clock would be, as he does the easier problems associated with describing the artisan class that produced these instruments and the markets that came to exist for them.

Quoting Lewis Mumford's somewhat hyperbolic view that "the clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern age", Landes has no interest in reducing the importance of the 18th- century invention seen by many as inaugurating the modern industrial era. He wishes only to draw attention to an earlier invention that is rarely studied by historians. Why that instrument came to be invented in Europe and not elsewhere, neither in China nor in the Islamic world; why it remained a European monopoly for almost half a millennium; how it came to be embellished and made a work of art - these are all matters that interest Landes, but they are secondary to his concern with how clocks made possible a new commerce and a new science where accuracy and precision were all-important. What others have done to demonstrate the effects of the invention of the printing press, Landes seeks to do with clocks, "one of a number of major advances that turned Europe from a weak, peripheral, highly vulnerable outpost of Mediterranean civilisation into a hegemonic aggressor".

Clocks and the research they generated gave the major European states new power. Even before that happened, Landes shows how Europe's monasteries, concerned with punctuality given their need to observe fixed times for their daily prayers and meditations, became "an important timekeeping constituency". With the development of capitalism in early modern Europe, other such constituencies proliferated, but they were never equally conspicuous outside Europe, where different religions and economic systems predominated. In navigation, as in so much else, precision promised wealth.

In the first half of the 18th century, Britain could reasonably claim to be the pre-eminent watchmaking society of Europe, having profited from the skilled artisans among the Huguenot community that arrived in Britain following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. British watches were thought to be mechanically superior to all others and sold well, but the French remained major competitors. In such an industry, where natural resources counted for little, and where new firms could easily enter the market, the Swiss became suddenly active, with Geneva, another haven for French Protestants, unable to meet demand between 1750 and 1785. When Geneva's dominance in the market was challenged, the threat came from neither England nor France, but from a new generation of watchmakers in the Swiss Jura, in and around Neuchatel. Following in the tradition of the French historian Fernand Braudel, Landes recognises the unique features of a mountainous region and the culture it allows for, and explains how these seemingly simple mountaineering folk, employing all but the very young and old, abandoned their agriculture and needlework to concentrate on watchmaking. While the Jura watches were cheap - cheaper than those of Geneva - and while many thought them shoddy, both undersold the British. Believing that the Swiss success with watches has almost no parallel in the history of commerce, Landes asks: "How could so small a country, indeed one small part of the country [the French part], have dominated a world industry for so long?" Rejecting the larger classical Weberian theory on the links between religion and capitalism in this instance, he accepts that Protestantism contributed to the intellectual and cultural level of the watchmaking population, with educated children providing an ideal workforce for such an industry.

Carrying his story forward to the 19th century, when new competitors arose on the other side of the Atlantic, and with the railways making accuracy and precision even more important, Landes argues that the battlefield demands of the American civil war did much to develop the American watch industry. As in Switzerland, success bred competition, and new firms entered the field, employing advertising to sell their wares. Because American watches were thought to be of higher quality than the Swiss, but cost less and were more easily repaired, the Swiss companies were compelled to innovate. Through versatility and flexibility, they fought back, reaching many different kinds of markets, although never winning back the monopoly of the American market.

As in his earlier work, Prometheus Unbound, Landes is concerned to chart the story of British decline. In the watch industry, he writes, "high costs, conservative styling, obsolescent technique, entrepreneurial complacency, resistance by labour to innovation" explain the loss of an earlier British eminence. He rejects the suggestion that the British saw that their comparative industrial advantage lay elsewhere, and that their decision to abandon clockmaking was a rational one. He is more interested, however, in the Swiss success - first, in meeting American competition; and, more recently, in meeting that of Japan. The Japanese developed their first electronic watches in 1968-69, and achieved remarkable sales success almost immediately. The Swiss advantage in skill and industry was thought to count for little in the new quartz age. But this was to prove untrue. Although the Swiss moved slowly, their newly invented "Swatch" soon found a prominent place in the quartz market, and their success with other innovations assured their continued prominence. In Landes's words, "prestige, artistry, luxury and snobbery" guaranteed that they would continue to be "primus inter pares".

Stephen Graubard is emeritus professor of history at Brown University and the editor of Daedelus

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