The art of watchmaking, like many others, is not born in Western Europe. The Islamic civilization, and especially the Chinese, revealed their mysteries before. The so-called Oriental hourglasses, an astronomically inspired clock, however, did not mean the social change that their mechanical cousins would bring in the West. The invention of the watch is, first of all, the discovery of time. The time of the merchant, as the French historian Jacques Le Goff put it, is not the time of the peasant.
Obviously, the measure of the days is as old as the observation of the stars. However, this service provided by the Sun and the Moon, is in turn a slavery to them. In the same way that the urban electric light would break the tyranny of the nights, the clock would free the busy men from the rhythms of the Sun. With the new advantages, the new values would arrive.
The Middle Ages, as in previous and later times, was an eminently agrarian era. Most Europeans lived from the cultivation of land or the care of their livestock, their life was marked by natural times, both daily and seasonal. The rest of the activities, sacred or profane, had to adapt to the rhythms that the work imposed. While watches were not common or known, they were not necessary either.
But something must have happened in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as Central and Western Europe were populated with mechanical watches of all kinds. From the public clocks of Padua or Bologna, to the cathedrals of Chartres or Wells, there was a new use of time among those men. The key elements will be the new monastic and urban life.
The clock for God
The new monastic rules, much stricter than before, will impose a centrality of life around prayer on the monks. On the contrary that for the farmers, the monk had to adapt his works to his prayers, that were raised within a stable schedule.
Fixed the lauds, the vespers or the intermediate hour, in the monastic life the exact knowledge of time, its units became indispensable. The clocks would flood the common spaces warning of the prayers, this would be the cradle of the nascent ingenuity.
For medieval theologians, time was as important as it was irrecoverable. To waste it was to waste a gift of God, to dedicate it to meditation, a sign of virtue.
The clock for money
Although bred to measure God’s times, they soon served other gods. The rhythms of work in the city, for merchants and craftsmen were not necessarily adapted to the incessant dance of the Sun and the Moon.
The demands of the business imposed the cultivation of new values, such as punctuality or efficiency. The public squares soon announced the hour ringing the bells. The city bustled, money changed hands, the busy citizens could not afford to be late for an appointment or wait for another in vain.
The cities became an echo of the ringing of bells, announcing all kinds of periodic events. The new times had a metallic sound.
The clock, cutting-edge technology
The development that these machines, already indispensable, had in a few centuries was symptomatic of their time. Far away was the ornamental and useless style of oriental mechanisms. The flow of water, used at the beginning, was not sufficiently precise and constant for the flow of time. The different systems of strings, axes and weights evolved into authentic masterpieces, such as the clock of the old town hall in Prague (1410).
In the 15th century, a model would be developed that would only be obsolete with the current mobile technology, pocket watches or wrist watches. The springs and spirals replaced the counterweights, and the watchmakers became less blacksmiths and more artists. It will be the definitive individualization of the vital rhythm, essential for the liberal professions. That same century, and the result of these small clocks, would see the appearance of the schedules. After 600 years not everything has changed.