The Quest For The Perfect Clock

As I was watching the countdown towards the New Year on my TV my thoughts wandered off to my ancestors who did not have (nor needed, perhaps) such exact timing available to them. In fact, for centuries the only way to tell the time more or less accurately was using a sundial. The only problem with sundials is that you need, well, the sun. So what to do on cloudy days and at night?

To solve this issue people used water clocks. This is a system that uses a regulated flow of water from one basin to another to measure time. During the Middle Ages church bells were used to communicate time measured by the church with sundials and water clocks to the congregation. In a time where the pace of life did not require any time measuring more accurate than telling the hours, this sufficed. After all, what medieval peasant would worry about milking her cows at 6:00 or 6:10 in the morning?

However, during the Renaissance, measuring time precisely became an obsessive quest, not because peasants demanded to be able to milk their cows at 6:10 exactly, but because it was instrumental in determining one's exact position at sea. Up until the 1400s people had sailed the seas mostly along the coast. Not only because they were afraid to sail off the world as they thought it to be flat, but also because of the fear of seriously getting lost. After all, there was no way of telling how far the coast was once the land was out of sight.

Already in the 1300s some mechanical clocks were constructed, but they were hopelessly inaccurate and needed daily fine tuning with a sundial. It was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who came up with the first pendulum clock in 1656. The pendulum clock proved to stay accurate for several days in a row, a huge achievement at the time. He perfected his clocks with inventions such as the balance wheel. That it was a Dutchman who came up with an accurate clock is not surprising. At the time, the Dutch Republic was in fierce competition with the English to control the sea routes to the East Indies. Any technology that would give either party a way to measure the longitude at sea would be instrumental in beating the competition. No wonder huge prizes were offered to anyone that could build such a seaworthy clock. However, Huygens never managed to get his clocks to work properly at sea where the rough movements of the ship would mess up the pendulum system easily. It was the Englishman John Harrison who eventually did so in 1736.

For the ordinary people, though, measuring time exactly did not become an issue until the arrival of the railway. In the Netherlands, the railway had spread countrywide around the 1850s. Only then it became apparent that towns in the East of the country were using a different time. At first, extensive timetables were used to inform passengers of the several local times involved. Since this still did not solve all the confusion and inventions such as the telegraph made time differences even more annoying, it was decided in 1909 to introduce a national standard time that became known as Amsterdam Time, which was UTC+00:20.

In 1940, the Nazi regime that occupied the Netherlands introduced Berlin Time, which is UTC+01:00. They also introduced daylight saving time. After the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, the time was not set back to Amsterdam Time. So even today the Netherlands is still on Berlin Time, and still uses daylight saving time, although the debate about the latter is increasing over the last couple of years.

However much comfort this exact measuring of time has given us, I sometimes wonder if our ancestors were not privileged after all to not have a demanding agenda and an unrelenting exact clock determining their every move. Perhaps a good idea for the new year is to toss our clock and agenda out of the window once a month and live a day at the pace of our ancestors. Happy 2012!