Mechanical Time


Clocks shape the perception of time in many cultures and can also dictate the actions and pattern of everyday life. In Western Europe the measuring and keeping of time using clocks has developed over around 800 years.

Cassiobury Park clock, by Leonard Tennant, about 1665

The earliest clocks, invented in the late 1200s, were very expensive and were mainly used in public places, such as cathedrals and churches. This way, anyone who could see these clocks or hear their chiming would know what time it was, but also how wealthy the institution was.

The cost of clocks at this time meant that only the very rich were able to have mechanical time keepers in their homes. Elaborately decorated, clocks in the 1500s and 1600s were often as much for displaying wealth and a mastery of science than the accurate measurement of time.

Longcase clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, London, 17th century

However, in 1657, the introduction of a swinging pendulum to regulate the speed of clocks made them accurate for the first time. This, in turn, made the study of science and astronomy much more precise.

Timekeeping at sea

Accuracy is especially important at sea where timekeeping is essential for navigation. However, up until the eighteenth century, exaggerated movement on the waves and changing temperatures meant clocks couldn’t be relied upon.

Minute repeating clock watch by Thomas Mudge

The invention of the marine chronometer changed this and made it possible for ships to calculate their position by finding longitude (the relative east-west position of any point on the earth’s surface). Many lives have been saved as a result.  



As societies changed and grew more complex, so did the need for accuracy in timekeeping and, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, clocks and watches became cheaply available across Europe and North America. Later, they became even more accurate because quartz and atomic technology were now being used to measure time.

Access to accurate timekeeping has now grown to the extent that we can keep track of time more or less anywhere. We can carry time with us on the watches on our wrists or on our mobile phones. We can glance at our televisions or computers. Or, we can check public clocks at such places as train stations, airports, bus stops and banks.

More information about objects featured here (from top)

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore

Shop Online

Pocket timeline to Mesopotamia, £7.99

Pocket timeline to Mesopotamia, £7.99