John Walker had a long career as a repairer of clocks and watches in Harrogate.
When I met him, he was retired – but he loved his work so much that he’d kept a few tools, so that he could still maintain his own clocks.
He explained that the first clocks had only one hand: knowing the hour was good enough in those days. As he described how the clocks worked, how to repair them, and some of the different timepieces he’d worked on, I was interested to learn more about the history of timekeeping.
Looking at the history of timekeeping brings up the question ‘what is time?’ We all know how to tell the time: we look at our watch and it is, say 3.30. Simple. But once, this was cutting edge technology.
Before the invention of clocks, people told the time from the sun and the stars. Sundials measured ‘temporal hours’ – each one a twelfth of the time between sunrise and sunset. Therefore, the hours in summer really were longer, while in winter, the hours were short – twelve hours compressed into the brief period of light between sunrise and sunset. Our fixed hours were only possible once someone had invented a clock.
Noon was the time when the shadow of the sundial was at its shortest, as the sun reached its highest point in the sky that day. Due to the rotation of the earth, noon occurs at differing times at different longitudes (the imaginary lines running from the North Pole to the South Pole): Therefore, temporal noon in Scarborough, for instance, will occur slightly earlier than noon in Kendal.
In the Mediaeval period, people largely worked near home and accurate time keeping wasn’t necessary. Furthermore, your work was your life: our modern day concept of selling our labour by the hour didn’t exist either.
In those days, the problem of accurately measuring time was cutting-edge science, a bit like studying sub-atomic particles today.
The ‘clockwork’ mechanisms we know evolved over the Mediaeval period. The first such clocks were the preserve of the fabulously rich, and of large organisations. It was the job of a watchman to check the town clock, and sound the hours.
Gradually, clocks became more widely available, but they were still set to local temporal time. This didn’t matter until people began travelling quickly. As railways began to cover the land, they found that varying local times were a problem – it even led to crashes. So railways began keeping clocks at the stations, showing ‘railway time’.
Eventually, the Government took action, to set an official time for all parts of Britain. And it used Greenwich Mean Time, a time standard that had been set up to help sailors to navigate the globe.
British Summer Time was instituted in 1916, as a wartime energy saving measure. The clocks were advanced by an hour, allowing more daylight when people needed it.
According to the Greenwich Maritime Museum the idea was first suggested by one William Willett who enjoyed early morning rides in the summer. He was incensed that, as he enjoyed the summer morning, many other people were still in bed. So he proposed changing the clocks as a way of getting them up earlier to make use of the daylight, and save artificial lighting in the evening.
At first, his idea wasn’t liked. But in 1916, Germany did it, and Britain, then at war, followed suit a few weeks later, creating British Summer Time.
All this, of course, can only happen because we have clocks. Before mechanical clocks, when we told time by the sun, our rising and sleeping would automatically be related to dawn and dusk.
Changing the clocks raises people’s passions, and every autumn, when clocks go back and make it dark earlier in the evening, someone suggests we stay on BST for winter.
Moving the clocks, however, can’t actually create more light, and in winter, there is no escaping the short days. BST means more light in the evening, but less light in the morning.
From 1986 to 1971 a three year experiment gave us ‘summertime’ – renamed ‘British Standard Time’ in winter. Unsurprisingly, a review discovered pros and cons, especially the dark mornings, and we returned to GMT in winter. I remember, as a child, going to school in the dark during that time – not much fun.
During the Second World War, we had ‘double summer time’ – BST in winter, then the clocks went forward another hour in summer. Again, the aim was to save energy. Therefore, some people are now suggesting we do this again, in the interest of saving energy to combat climate change.
Of course, anyone who wanted to take advantage of light summer mornings could simply get up earlier: what’s stopping them?
Today, most of use electronic quartz clocks and watches, rather than mechanical ones. They too are the result of high technology, a spin off from space exploration. But that’s another story.
Anyone interested in learning more about mechanical clocks, or finding someone to repair a clock, can contact the British Horological Institute, www.bhi.co.uk
Read the article in full in Dalesman Magazine, http://www.dalesman.co.uk/