But what truly moved me was the sense that I was in a room where big themes in history had actively been played out. I was not just looking at a picture, and I was not just seeing an hourglass. Instead, I could feel something of what Heinrich Suso had intended when he wrote about his plans ‘to waken the torpid from careless sleep to watchful virtue’. As I stood in the Palazzo Pubblico, staring at Temperance as she looked at her hourglass, I felt, somehow, like a better person. And that was because I was being worked over by a group of thirteenth-century political theorists who wanted to change the very way we live our lives.

Fils de restaurateurs d’horloges, ancien conservateur des collections horlogères du Royal Observatory Greenwich, chercheur associé au Science Museum de Londres, président du conseil d’administration de l’Antiquarian Horological Society, membre de la Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, David Rooney pourrait être une tête d’œuf mortellement ennuyeuse. C’est encore pire : c’est un véritable passionné à l’enthousiasme contagieux.

About Time n’est pas « une histoire de la civilisation en douze horloges », mais douze petites collections d’anecdotes thématiques, de l’Antiquité profonde au présent galactique, en passant par la Rome antique et l’Angleterre victorienne. Rooney est érudit, drolatique, curieux, provocateur et… expéditif. L’auteur britannique saute d’une période à l’autre sans perdre la moindre seconde, égraine ses petites vignettes avec une précision chronométrique, et fait tourner les têtes plus vite que les aiguilles.

Les innombrables historiettes défilent trop vite pour être pénibles. About Time nous fait voyager dans le temps et (c’est suffisamment rare pour être signalé) sur les cinq continents, pique immanquablement notre intérêt, mais ne parvient jamais à satisfaire notre curiosité. Après une tentative maladroite de science-fiction postapocalyptique1, les douze chapitres finissent de sonner. Rooney n’a jamais pris le temps d’expliquer le temps, comme s’il prévoyait que son lecteur lui en accorderait trop peu, mais j’aimerais bien repartir avec lui pour un tour (d’horloge).


Les horloges sont de petits univers :

But the other type of clock, which has become known as the astronomical clock, was something altogether more complex. One, the planetarium clock completed by the Chioggia-born Giovanni de Dondi in 1364, included a perpetual calendar showing not only the fixed religious feasts of Christianity but the moveable ones, too. It also showed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets, and even displayed movements of the Moon’s orbit that take over eighteen years to complete. By considering these rarer, more complex clocks, we come to the other theory as to why mechanical clocks came about. People were trying to make mechanical versions of the universe itself, with the rotation of the gears representing the rotation not just of the Earth but of all the celestial bodies as seen from it. They were attempting to recreate the force that moved the heavens.

La naissance de l’« heure de Greenwich » :

The first international time signals by wireless were broadcast from the Eiffel Tower in Paris from 1912. Ten years later a network of fifty transmitting stations around the world provided daily time signals for ships at sea. All the major maritime empires were served: there were wireless stations in British India, the Dutch East Indies, French Indo-China and Portuguese East Africa, among many others, but none in Britain itself, much to the consternation of Frank Hope-Jones, Chair of the Radio Society and a leading manufacturer of electric clocks, who said in 1923 that ‘the Englishman, who regarded Greenwich time as something peculiarly British, has been getting it from the observatories and countries of his neighbours to an increasing extent for the last ten years’. But plans were afoot to right this wrong.

Horloge maitresse, horloge esclave :

The clock that was originally installed at the Greenwich observatory in 1927 to transmit the time to Rugby for broadcast to the British Empire was a type called a ‘free-pendulum’ clock, which actually comprised two devices, one called the ‘master’ and the other termed the ‘slave’. The master clock was free and did little work; the slave clock was forced to march to the master’s beat and carried out all the labour of time distribution to the radio transmitters. The terminology of slave clocks had been coined in 1904, by a British government astronomer, but not at Greenwich. It was in Africa, at the Cape of Good Hope observatory, at the height of the Western imperial scramble to carve up the continent and its people, that a white British official, working at an institution whose very walls had been built by enslaved people, chose to enslave clocks themselves. Over a century later, people still routinely use the racist terminology of master-and-slave systems in engineering and horology, yet it carries a violent weight of the imperial past, born in Africa.

Le temps des transports et de la découverte :

When people tell the story of how time became standardized in the UK, they invariably talk about the building of railways. […] This account is all well and good, so far. But most histories of technology at this point go one step further. They commonly claim that, by 1855, it was not just railway time but the UK’s own civil time – the time in everyday life across the entire nation – that had standardized to Greenwich, and we abandoned our multitude of local civil times. That is how the story of standard time is usually told. The assumption is that everyday life quickly falls in line with the practice of the early adopters, in this case the railway companies. But the assumption is wrong.

Est en fait le temps des patrons et de l’exploitation :

Local time did hang around, and it did so until the 1880s, half a century after the railways started to run. The railways played a role in time standardization, but there is a much bigger story of how standard time in everyday life came about. And it revolves around Victorian morality and electric clocks. […] Standard time shown on public clocks is an instrument of moral control, and it is inextricably bound up with electricity, because time signals need to travel everywhere in an instant. Without electricity, a cotton mill in Lancashire, several miles from the nearest telephone exchange or post office, could run without Greenwich time for decades after the railways supposedly standardized Britain to GMT. Even London pubs could run on their own time until the lawmakers and engineers gave temperance campaigners the tools that they needed to restrict the sale of alcohol. Electricity, carried on overhead wires, could do more than standardize time. It brought these isolated islands of time, these lawless enclaves of temporal disorder, whether in Oldham or Old Street, into the hands of the moral reformers and their clocks.

Combattre le pouvoir du temps pour combattre le pouvoir de l’argent :

Authority breeds resistance. Standardization gives rise to dissent. People fight clocks, and they have always done so. Because what we are really doing is fighting with each other, as we have poured our very identities into clocks.

On n’a pas attendu ChatGPT pour tomber amoureux de la machine :

It hardly takes much analysis to work out what this all meant. The message from the GPO to its bill-paying subscribers, who were almost all men, was this. Do you want to escape your mundane life for a little while and experience something more … exotic? Well, we have just the thing. You can call Ethel Cain. You know what she sounds like and you know what she looks like. She is twenty-six years of age, slim, fair and attractive. And she is always willing. In its first year, the speaking clock, with Ethel Cain’s voice, took twenty million calls. This was not just a story of the GPO sexing up a service with salacious marketing. It could have done that with any number of its other telephone services but did not. There was something specific, and highly significant, around the fact that this was a clock. […] What are clocks? Perhaps the hints are adding up to something by now. Clocks are us, or, rather, they are proxies – stand-ins – for us and other people. We imbue clocks with identity. The telephone speaking clock made by the GPO in 1935 was not a machine, it was Ethel Cain. By dialling the right number, you could speak to her. You developed a relationship with her.

  1. Ce n’est jamais une bonne idée. ↩︎