Review of ‘About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks’ by David Rooney

I thought it was ‘about time’ I had a go at this horological history book which had been waiting on my shelf. I enjoyed the concept and I did learn a lot, but the writing style was a let-down, quite dry and repetitive. There are some black and white images included.

Book cover shows a black and white drawing of a clock tower.

Each chapter in the book discusses a facet of human civilisation: Order, Faith, Virtue, Markets, Knowledge, Empires, Manufacture, Morality, Resistance, Identity, War, Peace. Each of these focuses on a clock of historical importance, which also demonstrates the history of timekeeping. I thought it was odd how the author frequently claims that governments use clocks to impose order and that we should be wary of GPS and electronic time signals. He could have swapped these for fascinating facts, which surprisingly I felt there weren’t enough of. For comparison, I’ve read two other books on the topic – Timekeepers by Simon Garfield and Hands of Time by Rebecca Struthers – which were more interesting and more engagingly written than Rooney’s book.

I found the content more compelling once we reached the 20th century, but even better, the last chapter went way beyond that, being set in the year 6970, imagining a time capsule and plutonium clock in Osaka being retrieved by… whoever or whatever will be around in that remote era. This was a stand-out chapter for me, because it considers that if we are making clocks which will run accurately for thousands of years, this suggests there is hope for the human race. However, the author brings the mood down again with his worries about humanity’s reliance on GPS, as if we’re all supposed to do something about it. Another problem with this book is the uneasy mixing of personal experience and opinion with the formal historical discussions. I think that getting rid of the personal element would have improved it.

In summary, I’m not convinced it was worth my time to read.

This edition published by Penguin, 2022.

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