“Hey, let’s meet at Roebuck’s tomorrow for coffee.”
“What time’s good for you?
“Let’s do sometime between sunrise and high noon.”
“That’s kinda vague, but maybe I can make it. I’ll certainly be glad when they finish installing the clock on city hall.”
This is the conversation you might have had in Medieval Wroclaw, Poland in the 15th century, because there were no clocks! Your day would have been divided by the passing sun, which you may have noticed, is less than exact as an indicator of time.
And then came the mechanical clock, ticking off hours and minutes … and it was as predictable as, well, clockwork. Imagine what an incredible improvement knowing the time must have been.
These are the beautiful clocks sitting atop the old City Hall in the Rynek (market square) in Wroclaw. It’s classic Gothic style, and the golden sun-faced clocks provide some classy jewelry for the building. And clocks on either end ensure that, if you want to know the time, all you need to do is look up.
Medieval scholars emphasize that this technological advancement wasn’t just about the predictability of time. It also had far-reaching effects on society. The Catholic Church divided the day into two twelve hour parts, and the church bells rang loudly to signal prayer times. The accuracy and consistency of the mechanical clock that controlled the bell’s toll also became a part of daily life for the entire town. Essentially, the church bells and the mechanical clock now became the monitor of the working day.
Merchants and businessmen also found it advantageous to use the sixty-minute hour to regulate and measure the time a laborer worked on a job. Suddenly, laborers found themselves being held accountable for the time spent on their task, and not just the completion. If the job wasn’t finished in a reasonable amount of time, then the worker must be “wasting time”. Yep, the Middle ages is where this concept was born.
I’m sure that most of us, hounded by a deadline, have wished that the clock had never been invented. But a time traveler from the 15th would say, “Not so fast!”