Books & Literature

Book Review: About Time, by David Rooney

HISTORY: A horological history of human civilisation, told through twelve world-changing clocks.

It doesn’t do what it says on the cover.

Historian David Rooney is a noted clockmaker, has been a curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, was lead curator in the award-winning Mathematics Gallery and and served as Keeper of Technology in the Science Museum in London. He is a Liveryman and Past Steward of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and a member of several horological societies including the Clockmakers’ Museum, the world’s oldest clock and watch museum.

Thus, he would seem well qualified to write, what is claimed to be a history of civilisation in 12 clocks—ranging from a 263 BCE sundial in the Roman Forum, through the 1611 Amsterdam Stock Exchange Clock and the 1833 Observatory Time Ball in Cape Town, to the futuristic 6970 Plutonium Time Keeper in Osaka.

For me, the narrative lacked any coherence in providing a recognition of the actual evolution of civilisation—and is there really just one? As well as the timekeeping devices themselves, each chapter also purports to engage with major themes such as Order, Markets, Empires and Peace, respectively for the four clocks mentioned above.

Each chapter covers much more than the time piece named on the Contents page. In Empires, after covering the 1833 Observatory Time Ball in Cape Town, the author further discusses problems of navigation at sea, the mistreatment of Black South African workers, and the Piccadilly Circus world time clock, set up in 1929. Despite some interesting historical snippets, Rooney also makes terrible sweeping generalisations, including his comments that the establishment of a long-range wireless station in 1926 at Rugby was “…part of a government public-relations campaign to boost Britain’s sense of imperial pride…” because “…the British Empire was rapidly falling apart” (page 134). I assume this is based on his misunderstanding of the 1926 Balfour Declaration which led to the formation of the Commonwealth of Nations. If so, it is somewhat premature to speak of the whole British Empire collapsing.

It is clear Rooney has spent most of his life working with clocks, and the very notion of time. However, his personal viewpoint concerning how the regulation of time has impacted his mainly Euro-centric view of civilisation seems on the whole to be negative, as he appears to consider timekeeping devices and the standardisation of time as cultural constructs of political power and control. Important details are, at times, glossed over with poor explanations while the author goes off on a tangent. The book would have benefited greatly from a strong editor to reign in the author.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Released: June 2021
RRP: $26.00

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