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Publisher's Summary

For thousands of years, people of all cultures have made and used clocks, from the city sundials of ancient Rome to the medieval water clocks of imperial China, hourglasses fomenting revolution in the Middle Ages, the Stock Exchange clock of Amsterdam in 1611, Enlightenment observatories in India, and the high-precision clocks circling the Earth on a fleet of GPS satellites that have been launched since 1978. Clocks have helped us navigate the world and build empires, and have even taken us to the brink of destruction. Elites have used them to wield power, make money, govern citizens, and control lives - and sometimes the people have used them to fight back.   

Through the stories of 12 clocks, About Time brings pivotal moments from the past vividly to life. Historian and lifelong clock enthusiast David Rooney takes us from the unveiling of al-Jazari’s castle clock in 1206, in present-day Turkey; to the Cape of Good Hope observatory at the southern tip of Africa, where 19th-century British government astronomers moved the gears of empire with a time ball and a gun; to the burial of a plutonium clock now sealed beneath a public park in Osaka, where it will keep time for 5,000 years.   

Rooney shows, through these artifacts, how time has been imagined, politicized, and weaponized over the centuries - and how it might bring peace. Ultimately, he writes, the technical history of horology is only the start of the story. A history of clocks is a history of civilization.

©2021 David Rooney (P)2021 Recorded Books
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

A strange disappointment

This was not what I was hoping for. I was looking for a Malcolm Gladwell, Dava Sobel or Bill Bryson treatment about how people through history needed more complex and accurate time keeping methods, how they solved those problems, and then how those solutions in turn affected societies and the world.

This is not that book.

This book is a strange travel log of clocks that then describes the history of the locations where they were built. The books jumps around in time and place with no overarching story that connects the clocks, the peoples or the technology. How do any of the clocks in this book work? I still don't know. What problems did the clock makers need to solve to build larger and more accurate clocks? Not discussed. What local problems compelled each society to commission what were the super computers of their day? The reason is either never stated for, or is vaguely ascribed to the vanity of a ruler or the need to have signs of imperial domination in foreign countries. How did people's lives change after they funded a local city clock? Never stated. How was clock technology imitated and improved upon by other groups? No idea.

There is much more attention paid to the building the clocks are housed in, or the artwork around the clock than to the actual clocks themselves. No one ever benefits from the clocks in this book. Either people hate how their time is controlled, or they are used by empires to enforce their will on the people. It makes you wonder why cities throughout the world have commissioned large clocks as a show of technical ability and local wealth!

As the other review states, this a very British-centric book. The author has worked for British museums, but the singular focus is on evils of the British Empire, and how clocks were somehow the primary tool of imperialism is brought up at every turn.

The entire book could be easily summarized thusly: here are 12 civilizations, each one had a big or interesting clock, the British Empire was bad.

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Very British, heavy agenda

While there were some interesting clock stories, the author seemed more interested in anti-war rants. While there was a point to be made, the anti military undertone was not what I expected and became tiresome. The author was also not the most engaging narrator and his peculiar accent often was distracting.