The dawn of ‘Time’

It’s a metal cock, standing on top of the world as if it owns the place.

Here is its story.


Strasbourg, Prague, Gdansk, Paris… and many cities throughout Europe are host to beautifully-designed, exquisitely-engineered astronomical clocks.

Being a mug for a well-turned piece of mechanical engineering, I have visited many of them. In the process I notived something of a coincidence.

All were built in the 6 decades or so following the year 1350.

Strasbourg started construction in 1360, with that mechanical metal cock. Prague was completed in 1404.

Why then, of all eras? After all, the technology involved was hardly new. Accurate astronomical measurements of the type reproduced here were being recorded in the 8th century Middle East, and incorporated into machinery with metal gears as far back as ancient Greece.

So why didn’t this take off for centuries, and why so suddenly? What were we all doing, in Europe, at the time?

The answer – to over-simplify but nevertheless – was, beginning to sell our labour. We, and all our time and work, had until then belonged to whoever owned the land we lived on, under the feudal system. But between the years 1347 and 1350 the Black Death carried off a third of the population. The remainder, traumatised and beginning to question their faith, still had to find a living. For the first time money, in the form of wages, began to make a regular appearance in ordinary people’s lives. Not just twice a year – rent and harvest – but all year round.

A way of life that would previously have been thought sinful had become enough of a necessity that the Church had to take notice. It became the arbiter of days.


This dial comes from a later version of the Strasbourg clock. It gives the saint for each date and, via the calculator in the inner circle, the day of the week.

Hours proved another challenge. Some conventions divided up the daylight into twelve parts, so that a summer hour lasted longer than a winter one. The astronomical clock in Prague displays those ‘unequal hours’ as well as regular ones. The newest Strasbourg  dial (1842) has regular hours, but includes pointers for sunrise and sunset.


You could buy or sell your hours, or hire-out anything else by the hour or day while the Church, hiding a mechanism it previously believed to be bordering on the satanic behind elaborate imagery of saints and apostles, acted as referee.

The Church, by measuring and displaying time, had enabled the beginning of modern capitalism.

To be fair, it was better than what had gone before.

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