Time is The Emperor of All Things

I was invited to contribute an introduction to a new exhibition of 17th century clocks that is currently running here. This work is more connected to my work on the 17th century London. The subject, the invention of pendulum clocks in 1660’s London, was a revelation to me. The resulting essay is here split into 3 parts. The first looks at pre civil war London and the formation of a clock making industry; the second looks at the clock in Restoration London and the formation of what I call the discipline of ‘urban time’ — the clock as luxury item, as well as the means to measure work and life. The final section looks at relationship of the clock to the emerging Scientific Revolution.

1. What is a clock?

If we separate the dial from the movement, disarticulate the weights and wheels, the pallets and escapement or lay the winding barrels and fusees, the pendulum and springs side by side, one can only be impressed at the consummate skill involved in each individual part. The metal has been cast and cut. The wheels have been worked to a superlative level of precision. The pallet faces are shaped to hold and release the escape wheel at exactly the right moment, controlled by the the swing of the pendulum. Yet, as individual pieces of the clockmaker’s art, each mechanism remains inert. It is only once they are assembled, brought together in balance and harmony, the friction of the gears overcome by the power of the driving force, that the whole becomes more than its parts.

The seventeenth century pendulum clock is one of the most extraordinary inventions in the modern world. However, because of the device’s ubiquity in our own lives, its impact on human history is often overlooked as an aspect of modernity itself. Nonetheless, the French historian Marc Bloch saw the introduction of timekeeping in the early modern period as one of the ‘most far reaching revolutions in the intellectual and practical life of our societies’. As we will see in this chapter, the role of the clock as an object of desire, as a tool of disciplining everyday life and a way to think about and understand the world cannot be underestimated. It has become the central motif of modernity.

Why did the clock come to such prominence at this particular moment in history? Rather than looking at the details and identity of the device from the outside in, one should instead try and place the object in the world. The development of a marketplace for exquisite objects, the improvement of the craft of clockmaking, the systematic organisation of workshops, and trade standards, overseen by the chartered Company of Clockmakers, allowed seventeenth-century London to become home to a revolution in timekeeping. And furthermore, the improvement in techniques for making escapements, fusees, and pendula, for cabinetry, veneering, engraving, chasing and gilding made for exquisite machines that found a ready audience.

The development of a new mercantile ‘middling sort’ during this century heralded an emerging luxury market: a taste for new commodities from across the nascent empire — cotton, sugar, coffee — as well as the products emerging from the finest workshops within the capital. The London clock industry, regulated by a livery company founded in 1631, produced objects of artful craftsmanship, technical sophistication and beauty. Here was a mark of social standing, a signal of good taste that was to be publicly displayed.

But a timepiece also had a private function. The slow progression of the disciplining of the self, according to ‘urban time’, a self-imposed commitment to productivity and the efficient use of every waking moment. The clock allowed the diligent worker to marshal their day, to make every minute count, to judge labour by ‘time worked’ rather than by the completion of a task. In following centuries this discipline was transformed from a self discipline into a regulation to be imposed on others. This movement towards self-vigilance and a ‘work ethic’ was, one might argue, the most invisible, and yet most pervasive characteristic of what we might call modernity.

And alongside the ordering of private life, the clock was a symbol, no less, of the ordering of the universe itself. For the seventeenth century philosopher who had read Aristotle, Time was charted in the movement of the celestial bodies; it could not be reduced to the springs and wheels of a machine. Yet the clockmaker’s art came closer to any other means of showing that the working of the world was regulated and rational. In 1661, the philosopher Simon Patrick set the task of the new generation of scientific explorers: ‘then certainly it must be the Office of Philosophy to find out the process of this Divine Art in the great Automation of the world, by observing of how one part moves another, and how these motions are varied by the several magnitudes, figures, positions of each part, from the first springs…’

Through the seventeenth century, by great ingenuity, invention, and craftsmanship, Time did indeed became the emperor of all things. And today we live our lives under the clock. Bringing together these timepieces within this exhibition — to show the first devices together from East, Fromanteel, Tompion and many other exquisite craftsmen — is to observe the beginning of our present times, crystallised in brass, wood, glass and iron.

These are time machines in both senses of the phrase. They have recorded the passing of over 300 years: revolutions, wars, new nations and empires rising and falling, the relentless surge of technological progress. They have been handed down through families, sold, crossed oceans and been lost and found. But they are also time machines as they take us back to the time of their making. Just as studying antique hand blown glass allows us to think about the breath of the person who made the sheet, so when we look at the gears and wheels of the contraption, the intricate workings, we are drawn to contemplate the fingers and the eye of the craftsman and his tools. But there is also something more.

The clock — the idea, as well as the crafted object — is the key to unlocking our understanding of the ways that everyday life during this extraordinary era were imagined. And it is the clock that became the abiding metaphor for the modern life that we still recognise today.

Fleet Street. The route leads from the city walls at Ludgate towards the west, following the bend of the Thames to the south, linking the two cities: London and Westminster. Along this street many of the threads that offer an account of the early modern city come together and intertwine. Historically, this thoroughfare connected the two faces of the metropolis: the mercantile City and royal enclave in Westminster, and offered itself as a social and commercial entrepot between them. Here, the lawyers congregated at the Temple, near Temple Bar that designated the limits of the City’s limits, in order to to offer their service to anyone who needed it. They had been given this enclave following the expulsion of the Knights Templars in the 1310s. Since the Elizabethan era, the city population had exploded; between 1600 and 1650, it was estimated to have doubled from 200,000 to nearly 400,000. Now the city was no longer constrained by its ancient walls and 40% of the population lived outside the Walls, in the extramural communities called the Liberties.

It seems as if the whole of London life passed along Fleet Street. It was along here that the king was forced by convention to wait at Temple Bar until invited into the precinct by the City worthies. Here, since Wynkyn de Worde set up his first press at the sign of the Sun on the south side of the street in around 1500, it was home to the booksellers and printers, that serviced the demands of the City elite. Here also one could find leatherworkers, bootmakers, goldsmiths as well as clockmakers. The earliest record of a clockmaker here, Alan Wyckes, dates back to the 1390s.

This was a place of riots and uncivil behaviour, a common meeting place for apprentices who wished to make their discontents known. It was a home for spectacles: in 1611 Ben Jonson reported a performance of ‘a new motion of the city of Nineveh, with Jonas and the whale, at Fleet Bridge.’ The Fleet River was at this time a slow flowing sewer that disgorged its refuse into the Thames. In January 1628, on the occasion of the New Year festivals when the lawyers of the Temple traditionally elected a Lord of Misrule and went around the neighbourhood creating mischief, the merriment ended with a confrontation with a bunch of courtiers. In the melee that ensued there were four deaths. Within the week, two more were executed for their misdemeanours.

At the other end of the thoroughfare to the west, by St Dunstans Church, in 1671, a new clock was installed on the front of building to replace the Elizabethan ‘dyall’ that was scorched but had a narrow escape from the Great Fire of five years earlier. On the day of the installation, a vast crowd assembled to watch the two giants Gog and Magog, figures from the mythical history of the city, turn their mechanical bodies to strike the hours and quarters upon the bell. It was possibly the first public clock in the city to have a minute hand and stood out with dual faces on a large bracket over the streetscape, and could be seen along the length of the street in either direction. The clock was made by Thomas Harrys, a clockmaker on nearby Water Lane, and as one writer observed the giants ‘were more admired on Sundays by the populace than the most eloquent preacher in the pulpit within.’ Pickpockets and cutpurses were known to slide through the gawping crowds in pursuit of easy pickings.

Tradesmen, craftsmen and retailers also took advantage of the continuous passing traffic along Fleet Street to sell their wares, and this main thoroughfare was home to some of the finest purveyors in the capital. According to the Victorian historian, Walter Thornbury, the street was ‘rendered picturesque, not only by its many gable-ended houses adorned with quaint carvings and plaster stamped in patterns, but also by the countless signs, gay with gilding and painted with strange devices, which hung above the shop-fronts. Heraldry exhausted all its stores to furnish emblems for different trades. Lions blue and red, falcons, and dragons of all colours, alternated with heads of John the Baptist, flying pigs, and hogs in armour.’

According to Valarie, Adrian and Anthony Finch in their extensive history of the master clockmaker Edward East, who went on to be one of the most distinguished craftsmen in the second half of of the seventeenth century, the young East came to Fleet Street in 1618 as an apprentice to the goldsmith Richard Rogers. Nearby he would have encountered the workshop and forges of other prominent clock- and watchmakers ‘such as Robert Grinkin senior, Edmund Bull, Richard Crayle and Anthony Risby.’ East had been born in Bedfordshire in 1602, and came to London sixteen years later to start his apprenticeship into the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of the twelve great Liveries of the City. He learned his trade and gained his ‘Freedom’ within the guild in 1627 when he presented his apprentice piece, and was allowed to become a self-employed master clockmaker. At the same time he took possession of a workshop at the eastern end of Fleet Street, near St Bride’s church.

There was as yet no official recognition of the clockmaker community. Despite clocks having been made for over 300 years, it was nevertheless an expanding trade that was still finding its feet, with little mass demand for its wares. More often than not the clockmakers found representation in the City administration through one of the other guilds, most likely the Blacksmiths or the Goldsmiths’ or Joiners’.

The blacksmiths had developed their own skills in forging the large iron mechanisms of public church clocks; in addition, the company included clockmakers working brass into more domestic timepieces. Some turret clockmakers were members of the Joiners’. Meanwhile the Goldsmiths were skilled in the intricate complications and adornments of more private luxury items, watches and ornaments that required engraving and precision. Despite being part of the City trades, these craftsmen looked outside of the city walls for their market, especially the court. The most esteemed clockmakers tended to be foreign — French and German craftsmen — bringing skills from the continent that were highly prized and appeared to be lacking within the domestic industry. As a result, the King’s Clockmaker was occasionally ‘a stranger’, such as Nicolas Kratzer, who created an astronomical clock for Henry VIII at Hampton Court. The Royal Clockmaker in the 1630s was a Scot, David Ramsay, who had trained in France.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, London was still some distance away from becoming the cultural and commercial epicentre of Europe. The Bourse in Amsterdam was home to German bankers and the trading of Spanish gold, Portuguese spices, goods from the Baltic transported by the Hanseatic League from the north, as well as grain, precious metals, iron along the overland route from the Holy Roman Empire as well as the alum from the Vatican states essential for Dutch printers and dyers. English merchant adventurers had to take British wool there in order to trade it for wines, luxuries and credit.

London was something of a backwater that was only just starting to challenge its junior status. Since 1570, the London merchants had conducted their business in the new Royal Exchange. The nearby port was starting to bustle with international trade. For much of the first half of the century, Britain stayed out of the many wars that raged in Europe. It would not be until the mid-century, under Cromwell’s protectorate, that the continent was forced to face the prospect of Britain as rising global power.

Whilst clocks were one of the many things that the early-seventeenth century London looked to Europe for inspiration in both innovation and skills, a homegrown industry was developing. The first domestic clocks, built in brass, steel and iron, were introduced into the market by Dutch, Flemish and French craftsmen who arrived in the 1580s, often as protestant refugee escaping persecution. Once they arrived on British shores they made their way to cities such as Norwich and London. In the capital, the Huguenots settled outside the City in neighbourhoods outside the city walls like Blackfriars, Holborn, Clerkenwell and Southwark. They also brought with them other skills in engraving, silversmithing, woodworking, and lace work as well as clockmaking.

The English-developed domestic Lantern clock became more popular as the new century progressed and became common in the decades before the Civil Wars. This was not necessarily an aristocratic object, but could be decorated for the better sort of customer. The more decoration and the finer the engraver, the higher the price. At the very apex of the luxury market, well honed skills allowed miniature watches that could fit on a chain or even on the hilt of a dagger. The development of precision hand tooling for making wheels and mechanisms made for more intricate complications, but the resulting instruments remained imperfect timepieces.

Most craft industries affected by this new influx of highly-skilled competition cried foul. They called for the Companies to police their trade more vigilantly, to exclude foreigners and to ensure that prices were not being undercut. The rights of the tradesmen of the City were to be protected at all costs against ‘the known strangers of the same art dwelling in and around London’, whose inferior ‘inwork’ was hidden by the ‘outwards shew’ of the finely fashioned cases. Yet in the 1620s the clockmakers had no dedicated Companies to complain to.

In 1622, a group of craftsmen — from both the Goldsmiths’ and Blacksmiths’ — led by some of the craftsmen on Fleet Street — presented a petition to the King. The document named forty-six foreign artisans or ‘strangers’ whose trade was to be restricted. Yet, without the support of the King’s Clockmaker, David Ramsay, a Scotsman who would have been considered a stranger by the other Londoners despite his status, the petition was bound to fail.

A second petition was put to the new King, Charles I, who had ascended the throne in 1625. This repeated petition again raised the demand for the incorporation of a new Company of Clockmakers. This time they named Ramsay as the first Master (although he would have little to do with the Company for its first three years), and wisely took aim at all newly arrived, rather than established, aliens as the target of their professional restrictions. The Company’s royal Charter was granted on 22 August, 1631. From now on, horology was no longer a substratum of other crafts or industries but sui generis; it was able to set its own destiny, make its own rules and control its own progress. Its prescient motto was: Tempus Rerum Imperator — Time is The Emperor of All Things.

Dedicated to the ‘Art or Mystery’ of clockmaking, the Charter, that was finally signed with the royal seal in August 1631, set out the boundaries and rules of the group. First restricted to the City and a ten mile radius beyond, it aspired to regulate clockmaking throughout the land. It also desired to circumscribe poor craftsmanship, granting permission:

‘to enter any kind of ship, or land-based premises, where they suspect horological items are present. There they may examine all items, whether imported or not. If they find them to be faulty, badly made or deceitful, they may remove and destroy them, or, if they believe it to be achievable, they may see that they are put into a saleable condition. They must ensure that anything which is badly or deceitfully made, of insufficient quality metal, or made by anyone who has not served a full apprenticeship is seized in the name of the Crown.’

Yet the Company had gained its Charter at a time of uncertainty. In 1629, Charles I had dismissed Parliament and was attempting to rule without the MPs in Westminster telling him what to do, and attempting to police what foreign policy he was allowed to conduct. He was forced to find cash by any means, including from granting royal company Charters. So once the clockmakers had gathered enough money to entice the crown, their petition was swiftly granted. After that they were fixed on raising their own income from new members, whom they cajoled from other Companies, forcing them to join their newly chartered group if they wanted to trade, and then made sure to collect their membership fees, called quarterage. Offices and honoraries were also sold to those who wanted the title, while fines were imposed on those who declined office. There was no Hall for meetings, so these were arranged often in the Castle Tavern on Fleet Street or nearby. Certain members, such as Ahasuerus Fromanteel, complained of the lack of dignity in such proceedings.

There were compromises, of course. The skills of the foreign craftsmen were too valuable to be excluded for good. East joined the Goldsmiths’ Company in 1627, yet four years later was one of the founding members of the Clockmakers. In the next decade, through happenstance, marriage, the falling from favour of family blacksheep and untimely deaths, he inherited the workshops of his kin, fellow clockmaker, Edmund Bull, on Ram Alley, off Fleet Street. This location was within the City boundaries but also within the legal enclave of the Temple. As a result, it was an enclave within the City, but not of it. As the Finches point out, this allowed East to hire whomever he wanted, and produce pieces, made by foreign and unindentured workers, but assembled and ‘engraved in Fleet Street with Bull’s name and sold as London-manufactured’.

We often now classify timepieces by the master craftsman who signed the work, but this does not give a clear impression of the division of labour that went into such a creation. What was a clockmaker’s workshop like? A timepiece of the highest quality demanded the attention of many skilled workmen. A clockmaker such as Tompion, who we will return to later in more depth, used ‘cabinet makers, founders of brass and silver, spring makers, engravers, pattern makers for mounts, chasers, bell founders, gilders, chainmakers, linemakers, glass plate makers, locksmiths and blacksmiths for hinges.’ Such a large team of workers were unlikely to be found under one roof.

One might assume that the turmoils of the 1630s and the English Civil wars of the 1640s posed a threat to the burgeoning market in clocks. Despite a disturbance to the normal running of the Company in the initial years of the conflict, the City’s trades did not disappear completely. The Blacksmiths’ minutes describe their trade as ‘dead’ in this period. Nevertheless, clocks were neither the exclusive preoccupation of Royalists nor Parliamentarians and, once again, Edward East provides expression of how the London merchant put profit ahead of partisanship even in the darkest days. From his workshop on Ram Alley he saw the comings and goings of the king, courtiers, MPs and bands of angry apprentices along Fleet Street in the lead-up to the conflict.

Before the tumult East had established his reputation within royal Westminster. It is reported that one of his watches was offered by Charles I as a prize in a tennis competition at the courts on Pall Mall. Meanwhile, the Civil War having broken out in 1642, the business of the Clockmakers’ Company seemed to have ground to a halt. The minute books are blank from October 1642 to September 1645, suggesting three years of apparent inactivity. Yet in 1645, East was named Master and once the warring had ended and the King was imprisoned, it was also recorded that Charles commissioned ‘a Watch and a Larum of gould’ from East in the days leading up to his trial. The clockmaker was paid £40 by Parliament and the watch was handed to an officer who was supposed to take it to the Palace of St James. It never arrived but it was felt unproductive to complain although Charles did muse that ‘had he not told the officer it was for me, it would have probably been delivered; he well knew how short a time I would enjoy it.’

Nevertheless, East was no royalist. As a member of the Goldsmiths’ he was party to a £17,000 loan to the Parliamentary army, and there is some evidence that he lent more to Cromwell’s army himself. Yet, even if business did slow down, he was confident enough to stay within the City rather than move out to the countryside like other members of the family. Like others, he found other sources of income, making up for the downturn by speculating on property along Fleet Street. In his chapter in this collection Richard Garnier shows in detail how Fromanteel turned his attention to other instruments such as fire squirts, hydrometers, ingenious automata and developed his skills in grinding microscope lenses, which he later sold on the continent.

Historians now agree that the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell was not the Puritanical regime that it has been often painted. The man who banned Christmas was not an ascetic, but rather created a quasi-monarchical court that demanded art, music, and luxuries. From 1654 Cromwell took Charles I’s rooms at the Palace of Whitehall. Members of his entourage were given honorific titles. Beyond the palace, the 1650s was a time of relative peace in the city, when the machinations of the market were able to click and turn, albeit circumscribed.

Despite this, international trade grew, and new goods from new colonies arrived into the Pool of London, downriver of London Bridge. Cromwell’s 1651 Navigation Act fixed that all goods arriving at British ports must be carried in British ships. This led to inevitable conflict with the Dutch but resulted in the eventual fixing of London as the trading capital of an emerging Empire. By the end of the century London had become the most powerful mercantile city in the world. The clockmakers’ art and industry rose along with it.

But before this, at the moment when it seemed as if history itself was on the pivot, a notice appeared in the Republican news sheet Commonwealth Mercury in November, 1658, offering:

Clocks that go exact and keep equaller time than any now made without this regulater (examined and proved before his Highness the Lord Protector by such Doctors, whose knowledge and learning is without exception) and are not subject to alter by change of weather, as others are, and may be made to go a week, or a moneth, or a year with once winding up, as well as those that are wound up every day, and keep time as well, and is very excellent for all House clocks that go either with Springs or Waights; And also Steeple Clocks that are most subject to differ by change of weather. Made by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, who made the first that were in England. You may have them at his house on the Bankside, in Mosses Alley, Southwark and at the sign of the Maremaid, in Loathbury, near Bartholomew lane end, London.

Clearly, Fromenteel was happy to emphasise his connections with the Lord Protector himself as endorsement of the quality of his wares, and even sold a highly advanced and complicated clock to him for the fabulous price of £300, that later appeared in Charles II’s private closet. However, in September, Commonwealth Mercury had carried the devastating news of the death of Cromwell himself, who had passed on 3 September. The next eighteen months saw the whole nation descend into turmoil. For a few months Cromwell’s son, Richard, tried to steer the nation to safer waters but plots and conspiracies began to flow through the city. By the summer of 1659, General Monck had marched his army into the capital and taken control. The populace began to long for peace and started to imagine that the restoration of the Stuart dynasty to the throne may be the only route to such security.

This was hardly the best time for a commercial launch of a new genus of timepiece, the pendulum clock. Nonetheless, Ahasuerus Fromanteel, based south of the River Thames (where the Tate Modern now stands), would have wanted to be the first to establish his mastery of the complications of this new device. The leap in technological innovation was as vast as the change from vacuum valves to silicon chips in computing. Within this moment, one might observe a glimpse of the birth of the modern world.

see part 2

The author of Inheritance, coming in May 2021, The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, and Stones of London, and the bestseller, Cities are Good for You.

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