Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: Revolution in Time by David Landes

What shapes human history? That is a question that many historians and normal Joes like to research or discuss over drinks. What gets us from point A to point B on the course of building civilizations we can be proud of and admire?  The Jared Diamond school also wants to look as to why it was Europeans sailing the seas to interact with some people close to European levels of civilization and others far behind them. Diamond uses the luck of georgraphy, plants and animals. Others use reasons that can't be discussed in polite society. David Landes' Revolution in Time gives us a clue as to how the euros took a step ahead of other groups with the invention of the mechanical clock and tracking of time. In this 1983 book, Landes explains how it was religion as well as the desire for more standardization in the urban setting that created the need for clocks as well as tracking time. The culture created time discipline, which required a way to track time so you wouldn't be late. I really enjoyed this book, but recommend that you can read the first 190 pages and be set. The last 140 pages are about the clock industry, changes as well as the current state of the game. Landes explains how the need for prayers not aligned with specific natural times of the day was a driver behind the clock invention. Even the military adventures of the day could use time keeping to their advantage. It's a great book, and you get a feel for how 'new' in the course of history tracking time to the second is.

There were a couple of curious things in this book, which will make you laugh looking back thirty years after its publication. Landes writes about British scholar Joseph Needham desperately trying to invent a connection between the Chinese water clock and the European mechnical clocks. Needham disregarded evidence, created theories of rumors somehow influencing the mechnical clock design, and also was a socialist who was suspected of being too friendly with the communists and had to resign from his UNESCO post. Oddly enough, his sympathies in China were extended even after the Chinese won the civil war. Needham was a lying piece of shit white academic who wanted to combat the "balance sheet of indebtedness among the cultures of the Old World". Landes' critique of Needham reminds us all to ask what are the motives behind a writer's presentation of the facts.

Another funny bit is how Landes thought the quartz revolution in time keeping would make mechnical clocks and watches obsolete. If you have a watch, I bet it's mechnical as only nerds wear quartz digial watches. Landes in 1983 did not know the power of good marketing and cool. In reality, how close do we commoners need our time keeping? There is something visually pleasing about a nice watch, and watches are status symbols. Landes would not know that quartz digital watches would become a nerd sign. This was a funny piece to read thirty years after publication. It's a bit light hearted after a dry history lesson. Check the book out. It's worth an Amazon .99 deal or Half Priced Books bargain find.

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