The clock is a particularly emblematic piece of technology. The invention of the mechanical clock in the thirteenth century inaugurated a new representation of time. For the West, the clock symbolized regularity, predictibility, and control. A clock serves to produce a correspondence between events and vertices of time moments. 

In his book Revolution in Time, David Landes describes the Chinese attitude towards the clock, which they invented, as an example of disjunction between the technological artifact and social need. The Chinese considered their clocks a curiosity without social consequence, and they forgot how to make them. Much later, when Western imperialists insisted on opening up China to trade, the Chinese avidly bought every form of clock available, but this fever only illustrated their distance from the machinery of the West. Lynn White also notes that clocks were very differently embedded in cultural praxes of the Latin West compared to the Byzantine East. "Clocks were never permitted within or on Byzantine churches; to place them there would have contaminated eternity with time." For White, the Baconian desire for power in the medieval West lead to the fact that "As the mechanical clock was invented in the West, it quickly spread not only to the towers of Latin churches but also to their interiors." ("Cultural Climates and Technological Advance in the Middle Ages", Viator2, 1971.)

In the West, the relationship between the clock and culture was altogether different. "Suddenly, towards the middle of the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock seized the imagination of our ancestors. Something of the civic pride which earlier had expended itself in cathedral-building was diverted to the construction of astronomical clocks of astounding intricacy and elaboration." (Lynn White, Medieval Technnology and Social Change, p. 124) 

The clock was almost immediately interpreted as a paradigmatic metaphor. Nicholas of Oresmus, who died in 1382 as Bishop of Lisieux, described the universe as a vast mechanical clock created and set running by God so that "all the wheels move as harmoniously as possible." Ilya Prigogine asks why the clock almost immediately became the very symbol of world order. He notes that the clock is a contrivance governed by a rationality that lies outside itself, by a plan that is blindly executed by its inner workings. It is a metaphor suggestive of God the Watchmaker, the rational master of a robotlike nature. (Order Out of Chaos, p. 46) Prigogine believes that the success of the clock metaphor indicates a resonance between theological discourse and theoretical and experimental activity: a mutual amplification of the two discourses. The clock served as a metaphor-metaphysic for both the universe and for understanding. 

Descartes thought of the body as a clockwork mechanism in which a desired series of operations is activated by a controlling device or coordinated by a series of mechanical linkups. The fascination with automata that seem lifelike is the correlate to this view. 

The clock metaphor played an important role in discussions of evolution. The "argument for design" i.e. for God, described in Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, was an argument based on the unlikelihood that life would just have assembled from parts like a watch spontaneously assembling itself without a prescient watchmaker. Darwinian theory sees evolution as a "blind watchmaker", that is to say, there is no preordained design but a constant process of trial and error. ( natural selection). Discussions of evolution have themselves extended to discusions of cultural evolution, with genetic instructions now transformed into "memes" -- units of cultural information transmitted by imitation or teaching rather than inherited, like genes. ( see Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype. ) New feedback loops have been discourse and technologies have produced the concept of artificial life. According to this account, the process of evolution has lead to watches that understand what makes them tick. 

Why is the clock the pardigmatic mechanical object as contrasted to the organism? (see discussions of external / internal agency) as in, for example, Schlegel's discussions of the clock and the tree. For the romantics, part of the danger of the clock is that it mimics the organism. Are there two ways of thinking about the clock: the first considering it as a mechanism, the second as a way of telling time? The first way stresses the autonomy of this machina machinarum. The second is teleological, comes closer to the notion of organism. How do we know that a clock is working? We refer it to other clocks. How do we know we can tell time just by looking at the clock? We have to stipulate it. 

The development of the clock represents the conquest and instrumentalization of both time and space. Accurate chronometers were required for navigation. It is possible to determine longitude by the stars, but determining latitude depends on being able to measure relative change in time of day. (see Landes, Revolution in Time)

A mechanical clock requires a regulator, or time standard, which beats time, and an escapement, which counts the beats. In mechanical clocks the escapement rations the energy of the prime mover (weight or spring) through a stop-and-go mechanism. Many clocks were designed as miniatures of the great public show-clocks. Other timepieces, especially the watch, were designed as ornament or jewel, with primacy given to the container rather than the contents. 


The disciplining of labor and of social relations through time is another profound function of the clock. Monasticism asserted the originally Jewish thesis that work is an essential kind of worship, that God's command to labor six days of the week was as binding as that to rest on the seventh. The regulation of the day, which started in the ringing of the bells in the monastery, was extended to society at large through the tyranny of the clock. cf orrery. Lewis Mumford described the relation between the clock and the monastery in Technics and Civilization. For Mumford, "The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age." Mumford notes that the clock changes our perception of time as quantity. Deleuze and Guattari describe this process as striation. The model for an analysis of the clock would be Foucault's examination of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish. (see diagram.)

It is important to keep in mind the socially coercive function of the clock. (see E.P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism" in Giddens and Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict.) Thompson distinguishes between the "natural" rhythms of "task time" and "clock time," in which time becomes currency that in not passed but spent, which is marked by "time thrift" and a clear demarcation between work and life. Time obedience can be distiguished from time discipline: an internalization of social discipline, away from public spectacle (the clocktower) in favor of the personal (the pocket watch.) 

"Technology demands the temporal metering afforded by the clock, while it is simultaneously a response to the terror of time with which the inexorable movement of the clock puts us in touch." (Simpson) (see time and technology

The inevitable, unstoppable progress of the clock mirrors representationally the inexorable passage of time, resulting in a "a new time senses that finds one expression in a heightened awareness of mortality." (Thompson) The clock develops from a one-handed clock, that marked the hours, to the two- and three-handed in a trajectory towards the primacy of the instant. (cf Kern and "culture of simultaneity")

As Nietzche put it in the "Untimely Meditations", "once we possess that common economic management of the earth that will soon be inevitable, mankind will be able to find its best meaning as a machine in the service of this economy--as a tremendous clockwork, composed of ever smaller, ever more subtly 'adapted' gears".