It was a sweltering Sunday when British historian and author David Rooney arrived in Kuala Lumpur, but that didn’t stop him from taking a walk to the Sultan Abdul Samad building near Dataran Merdeka to see the clock tower.
As he turned around the corner and the square came into view, he was transported into the past – the day Malaya gained independence in 1957, and all the stories that came before.
“I find it really powerful to visit these clocks which are still amongst us telling stories from the past – to know not just the role it played in the 1890s when it was built, but the role it played in 1957 when it struck midnight into Aug 31, where the Union Jack was lowered, the flag of Malaya hoisted for the first time and tens of thousands of people chanted ‘Merdeka!’,” he says during a recent interview.
The clock was built by Gillett and Johnston in Croydon, South London, in the 1890s, and it is still working today.
Rooney was in Kuala Lumpur for the recent Khazanah Megatrends Forum 2022, where he gave an address on clocks and timekeeping.
While time, ironically, limited the discussion to a few select subjects, he managed to squeeze in some thoughts on the historical symbolism of the clock tower (a physical representation of the ruling colonial class by proxy, and as a tool of control), the atomic clocks of the modern world and how time zones are used to exercise political power, among other things.
Last year, he released a book titled About Time: A History Of Civilization In Twelve Clocks.
Through the stories of these clocks – among them, the 1206 al-Jazari’s castle clock in present-day Turkey and a plutonium clock buried in 1970 in Osaka, Japan – we learn how time has been imagined, politicised and weaponised over the centuries.
“I started out writing about the history of clocks, then realised what I was writing was really the history of people and civilisations. I started to spot common civilisation-level themes with each clock I was writing about, ideas that humans have always cared about, like faith, mortality, virtue, industry and manufacture, how to wage war and make peace.
“I kept seeing clocks being deployed in all of these contexts, and by looking behind the face of every clock, I could see people who would cause these clocks to be made for a reason. These reasons were often about power or control, about the building and the maintenance of empires, and about identity. We care so much about public clocks because they have the identity of nations. For instance, in London where I live, Big Ben is a famous symbol of London, but it is also a symbol of Britishness for many people,” he says.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Rooney is obsessed with clocks.
When he started working on About Time, he went to Italy to see two things: one of the oldest surviving mechanical clock in the world and a fresco with the earliest known depiction of an hourglass.
The first document citing the existence of this clock, located on the St Andrew Tower in Chioggia, dates back to 1386.
There is speculation that the clock may be even older as a war in the 14th century had destroyed many documents written before that.
“The clock in Chioggia is still working, they wind it up every week. And to be able to stand next to it and look out over the 630-odd years earlier, made me scream,” he says.
The next year, he returned to Italy to visit Siena, where a commissioned fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painted in 1338, features the virtue of Temperance – a woman in a blue robe – holding an hourglass in her hand.
“We are familiar with the concept of life passing as the sands in the clock run out, and here is the first known depiction of it. It is these physical experiences, if nothing else, that enthused me all the more in the subject, and made me want to write bigger and better stories. Because of all the reading and writing for the book, it made me look at clocks in a new light. Every clock I see now just raises new questions and gives me new ideas,” shares Rooney.
When Rooney was 21, he joined the Science Museum in London and has spent his life in museums ever since. He was curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory Greenwich and was part of the management committee of the Clockmakers’ Museum, the oldest clock and watch museum in the world. Since 2009, he has helped to run the Antiquarian Horological Society and currently chair its electrical timekeeping group.
His interest in clocks can be traced back to his childhood, when his parents decided to embark on a career change and set up a clock restoration business. His father, who had always been interested in clocks, left for a year to train as a professional clock restorer.
“When he came back, my life completely changed, because now there was a business being run in our family home. The dining room was converted into the horological workshop, and a spare bedroom turned into the office where my mother ran the business while my father was working on the clocks downstairs,” he says.
For the next 10 years before he left home to go to university, Rooney was, in a small way, a part of the business.
“I would go with my parents during the weekends and school holidays to pick up clocks, to help set them up and to take back clocks to their customers. And that had a profound effect on me in a couple of ways. First, I got to appreciate the beauty of clocks and how they are incredible creations. Humans have been making these things for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and every clock was just an absolute mechanical marvel. Not only did somebody manage to make them, but my father was able to bring them back to life. And that was wonderful,” he says.
But what also made an impact on the eight-year-old was how his parents researched the story of every clock that came to them, so as to be able to tell the clock owner something about them. It didn’t matter if they were among some of the finest clocks you could find in the world, or a modest clock, that although wasn’t expensive in the least, held some sentimental value to the customer.
“My parents treated every clock as an equal and what that did to me was to absorb the idea that every clock is important. I studied physics in university and ended up working in the London Science Museum, studying the history of technology and becoming a curator of timekeeping as well as other subjects. And I always remember the lesson I learnt as a child, that every clock has a story to tell and that by uncovering these stories and presenting them, we are keeping these tales and clocks alive,” he relates.
Rooney recalls a pivotal moment during this time, one that set him on the path of time and clocks. It happened during one of the rare times that his father visited home during his training year. It was Rooney’s birthday and his father gave him a clock he had rescued from a dumpster.
“It had been thrown out because it was a cheap 1940s battery-powered electric mantel clock by Metamec. This became my father’s side project in the evenings – he replaced the glass, repaired the wooden case, mended the mechanism and brought it back to life, then brought it home and gave it to me for my eighth birthday. And just like that, I had a clock!”
Metamec was once Britain’s largest clock manufacturer.
“It still works, I have had it repaired once by a close friend who is a clockmaker. He wouldn’t normally work on a clock like this because the cost of restoring it is far more than its value. But this clock is priceless to me,” he says.
Enslaved by time
Today, we check our watches or phones to keep tabs on time. We often find we have too little time, or it is not yet time, to do what we want to do. Indeed, we are at the mercy of time
“The idea of clocks as tyrants, telling us what we can and cannot do, goes back more than two thousand years. In my book, I talk about a quotation from 263 BCE when ancient Rome got its first public clock, a sundial that was mounted on a tall column in the Roman Forum.
“A playwright wrote a play where he made a character exclaim, ‘The Gods should damn the man who first set up a sundial here to cut and hack my day so wretchedly into small pieces!’. He went on to describe how when he was a boy, his stomach was the best clock because it told him when to eat. ‘But now’, he said, ‘I cannot eat until the sundial tells me to, even if I am hungry’. So the idea that the clock is a tyrant and that we have to obey it, goes back a long time. And that quotation, I think, still sounds really modern,” says Rooney.
But clocks can also be used to make a better world for ourselves.
“When faced with existential threats like climate change, decisions made by governments, businesses and the individual, must be decisions that allow for humankind to continue existing in the future. Can clocks help? I believe they can.”
We can make clocks that will keep time long into the future, urging us to think about a more sustainable future.
One example is The Clock Of The Long Now that is being constructed in the United States, a giant mechanical clock built inside a mountain, designed to keep accurate time for 10,000 years.
As for the clock that was placed in a time capsule and buried in a park in Osaka, the plan is to dig it out in 6970, and to find it still ticking some 5,000 years after it was buried in 1970.
“These are clocks that help us think in the long term. What can we do now to make sure that there are still school kids around in 6970 to see this dug up? Likewise, the people behind The Clock Of The Long Now are imagining that humans will exist in 10,000 years. So what decisions do we need to make on Earth now to ensure that? The clock becomes a conversation starter to make long-term thinking commonplace rather than rare. All these give me hope that the clocks we make, should be the clocks we want,” he says.
While Rooney leaves the more abstract concepts of time to the philosophers, he points out that mankind’s relationship with time is a long-standing one.
The awareness of the passage of time – light and dark, seasons, moon phases, cycles for planting and reaping crops – and subsequent efforts to understand them and measure them, have led to the ability to predict the future.
“It is really significant how this changes the human experience. Rather than living in the moment, it enables us to plan. Clocks are the most precise measurement instruments we have ever made.
“The latest atomic clocks, if they could last this long, would not gain or lose a second in the remaining lifetime of the universe. We use them for our GPS satellites, in telecommunications and financial market trading. We have become reliant on clocks to an extent we never have before. These clocks have made the world better in so many ways, but our reliance on them have also made the world brittle,” he concludes.