Thursday, June 16, 2022

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks, by David Rooney (author, narrator)

Recorded Books, ISBN 9781705051788, October 2021

This is a history, not of time, but of timekeeping and clocks, and how clocks have changed our lives.

Rooney grew up with parents who were clockmakers, and pursued a career in the maintenance and history of technology generally and clocks in particular, and is a former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

He's also very focused on how clocks and timekeeping have been politicized and weaponized. Sometimes this can be annoying; sometimes it's just weirdly ironic. He offers us at the start the story of KAL Flight 007, the Korean commercial airliner shot down after entering Soviet airspace on September 1, 1983.

I'm not going to rehash the details, some of which the Russians still dispute, but this was a civilian airliner that made a course error in its navigation system--an error that would have been avoided with now-routine use of GPS to check its actual location. Rooney goes over the details of the course error, why GPS would have prevented it, and notes that the first, experimental, purely military GPS satellites were in orbit. The system wouldn't be available for civilian use for years.

After explaining how 269 lives could have been saved by the precision clocks aboard the GPS satellites, Rooney tells us this system is not benign, because it's military.

Okay. But it still would have saved 269 lives had it been in use that day, and hit has saved a great many lives since. It's not the only thing, by any means, invented by the military, for military use, that has also become tremendously useful in the civilian world.

This is a fascinating history of clocks and timekeeping, and its impacts, economically, socially, philosophically, scientifically.  But Rooney is most focused on the impact of clocks as instruments of control, and oppression. He's not wrong, but at the same time, I don't agree that in all cases it's the clocks that are the problem (sometimes they are a major contributing factor, though), or even that all the effects he dislikes are actually bad.

And yet this is a fascinating book to listen to, and the history it tells is absorbing. And Rooney absolutely loves clocks, and describes individual clocks, and the progress of timekeeping technology, in loving and fascinating detail.


I bought this audiobook.

No comments:

Post a Comment