Review: On Time, A History of Western Timekeeping by Ken Mondschein

Mondschein’s On Time is well-written for its target audience, that being laypeople and undergrads. The book is packed full of information about the various types of timekeeping practices and devices from throughout history. In the back of this 240 page book are found the 186 notes that include commentaries and citations, an appendix with 5 exercises (one from each chapter), a convenient glossary, an index, and a short passage at the end that contains referencing to additional reading materials on the topic.

Chapter one is titled “Scholars and Spheres”. It gives a brief history of ancient to modern timekeeping devices and it explores the basic methods for the main timekeeping traditions. Although the focus of the book is on the Western world, it smoothly draws examples from the Eastern and Mesoamerican worlds to add a broader perspective. This chapter ends by restating the discipline of timekeeping was not originally developed purely out of a simple interest to keep time (as in knowing what time school or work starts and ends) but to understand the nature of the universe, among other things.

Chapter two is titled “Cities and Clocks”. It begins by talking about the social uses and effects of timekeeping and then continues into medieval timekeeping technologies. It gives overviews for the water clock and mechanical clock that not only include technical information about how the clocks function but also historical information about their roles in different societies. Even different philosophies about time from middle ages are discussed in some detail. This chapter ends at the turn of the 15th century after covering the invention and impact of mechanical clocks in the 1300s.

Chapter three is titled “Savants and Springs”. It opens with stories about Galileo and the earliest known use of a timekeeping device assisting in a scientific experiment. Then the history and physics behind pendulums are discussed before the history and inner-workings of watches are covered. It ends with a brief section about Isaac Newton and his philosophies concerning (absolute) time.

Chapter four is titled “Navigators and Regulators”. It starts with a tale about a naval incident that occurred because of a lack of knowledge pertaining to longitude. It continues on to cover the history of the efforts of determining longitude. The chapter ends with the history of the development of precise timekeeping and its role in the industrial revolution.

Chapter five is titled “Rationalization and Relativity”. A succinct recount of Einstein’s theory of relativity and of the various modern timekeeping devices is given. The chapter ends on the topic of the atomic clock and its impact on society.

Overall I enjoyed the book. I thought the selected stories from the different chapters were choice and that they did well to put the fundamentals of timekeeping into perspective. The length of the book felt appropriate for an introductory type book. Along with taking notes while reading and taking detours to look into his sources, I finished this book over the course of 10 days. I found the notes being located in the back of the book to be a minor inconvenience but an inconvenience easily remedied by using a second book mark.

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[1] – Mondschein, Ken, and Neal Stephenson. On Time: a History of Western Timekeeping. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

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