Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Modern Machine

My good friend is an industrial scientist - he just sent me an email with the following quote:

The clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

He wanted a horologist's view on the statement.

I immediately thought of how modern industry is so inextricably geared towards efficiency.  The quote brought to mind Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis... I thought of New York's subway system and automated assembly lines and factories all timed to work much like a clock.

The clock is of course not an 'invention' of the modern industrial age though. To me, the horological development that would have made the clock so important to the modern work force and efficiency planning is the minute hand - which is credited to appear at about 1475.  

But then again, if you consider the importance of travel (which leads to discovery and trade) then you can't overlook the impact of John Harrison's work in developing a clock accurate enough to aid in navigation. His "H5" was completed in 1761- that counts as the modern era. Without the ability to reliably find longitude it doesn't matter if you have a steam engine or not - you would steam around in circles, or arrive horribly off course.


An interesting side note: American clockmaker Eli Terry is credited with using an automated assembly line with interchangeable parts to create cheap clocks in 1802-1816 - soon after Eli Whitney used these techniques of the industrial revolution to make guns for the young American army. Eli Terry used water power and wooden jigs to replace the work of skilled craftsmen.

What are your thoughts?  Let us know.


  1. Hey! Thanks for posting the quote here! I figured it would be worth some discussion...here's my thoughts:

    Your point about the chronology of the invention of the clock is well taken, but I think the implication of invention in the quote is an assumption here (easy enough to make on first glance, especially when it's being put in opposition to the steam engine--the iconic invention of the Industrial era).

    It seems like Mr.Mumford was trying to contest steam's iconic connection to the era, supplanting the steam-driven engine as the "key-machine" (I guess "keystone" perhaps would be the closest relative to Mumford's neologism), and focusing--as you rightly point out--on the need for precision organization and efficiency, mediated (and also symbolically represented) by the mechanical clock. Actually, the idea is nicely illustrated if you think about timetables: as important as steam locomotives were to industry and transportation, they needed to be organized and mastered by accurate timekeeping to be useful (right in line with your example of timepieces being essential to effective nautical navigation).

    So maybe this era should be known not as the Age of Steam, but maybe
    the Age of Clockwork? The problem here is, again as you've described, the clock is an historical enough invention that it spans several eras, and (surprisingly) even the minute hand goes back to the 15th Century. (...what about the second hand though?)

  2. Also interesting:
    this is from the Wikipedia page on the Industrial Revolution: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution#cite_note-13)

    Until the 1980s, it was universally believed by academic historians that technological innovation was the heart of the Industrial Revolution and the key enabling technology was the invention and improvement of the steam engine.[14] However, recent research into the Marketing Era has challenged the traditional, supply-oriented interpretation of the Industrial Revolution.[15]

    Lewis Mumford has proposed that the Industrial Revolution had its origins in the early Middle Ages, much earlier than most estimates. [16] He explains that the model for standardised mass production was the printing press and that "the archetypal model for the industrial era was the clock". He also cites the monastic emphasis on order and time-keeping, as well as the fact that medieval cities had at their centre a church with bell ringing at regular intervals as being necessary precursors to a greater synchronisation necessary for later, more physical, manifestations such as the steam engine.

  3. Thanks for your comments!

    I am a big fan of James Burke's Connections and there is an episode where he traces the development of automation - from the waterwheel turning cogs in a mill, to clocks, to automata, and eventually to the automated assembly line. The different stages of the development of the loom also fit into that progression, as do punched cards used for census machines and eventually computers.