Consciousness of time

The coming of the mechanical clock led to a new ordering of activities, says B. N. Goswamy

Dial of a contemporary Breguet watch, using Roman numerals
Dial of a contemporary Breguet watch, using Roman numerals

I am greatly interested in trying to understand the nature of Time — to the extent that we, poor mortals, can understand it at all — but mostly as reflected in the Indian thought: Time that is mysterious and elusive, malleable and pliant, cyclical and turning back upon itself, but, in the final analysis, incomprehensible.

This piece is about time, but of the measurable kind, and that too only in the European context. And it is occasioned by two conversations that I had not too long ago. The first was with a friend in Zurich, Ulrich Albers, whose lively mind routinely grapples with and tries to make sense of all kinds of issues. He once mentioned, almost in passing, that he had recently read an interesting article on how the erection of clock towers in medieval Europe affected lifestyles, even changed whole mindsets eventually. The point made in the article generally was that, with great big clocks that started being set up in prominent places from the 14th century onwards — on church towers or city squares — ‘personal time’ began slowly to yield to ‘public time’; a new ordering of activities came into being; peoples’ days started becoming more organised, or regimented. And so on.

I was intrigued by the thought. I was of course familiar with clock-towers, or ghanta-ghars as we call them in our part of the country, — those at Lyallpur, now Faisalabad, in Pakistan; in the heart of the city of Amritsar; or in Ludhiana, for instance — but had seen them simply as landmarks, never giving any thought to what their much older and grander counterparts in Europe had meant, or wrought. But it all made sense. And when I started reading a little on the subject, I was astonished at how much discussion there has been on the subject, and how heated are the debates.

Soon after mechanical clocks started being made, somewhere in the late 13th or early 14th century, it seems, it was the monastic orders of the Christian church that first embraced them, for they helped establish the ‘iron discipline’ so needed, or at least favoured, in monastic routine. Simply put, when the hour strikes, a given activity has either to begin, or cease, inside the monastery: waking up, settling down to pray or eat or tend the garden, or going to bed, and the like. But, outside the monasteries also, the revolutionary device called the mechanical clock began to synchronise the rhythm of entire cities. Before this, according to some, dealing with ‘personal time’ appears to have been "relatively irregular, close to nature, spontaneous, and, above all, legally self-determined". But it all began to change with the ‘public measurement’ of time. The rising great merchant classes in medieval Italy, for instance, were greatly interested also in carefully measured time, for time began to mean money. And it was these classes, imbued with civic sense and motivated by personal gain, which often encouraged, and helped in the setting up of, shining great clock towers in cities like Padua or Venice, for instance. Soon we hear of "Church’s time", and "merchants’ time", and so on.

One can move further. With the coming in of the industrial age, and the plethora of problems it brought with itself, time moved to centrestage, as it were, becoming the central theme in the ‘social questions’ of the period, ‘dividing political movements and parties’. The space devoted to issues of ‘working time’ in the writings of Marx and Engels is, for instance, remarkable. For Lewis Mumford who wrote with such brilliance on the cultural history of technology, the key machine of the industrial age was not the steam engine but the clock. For it brought with it the transition to abstract, measured hours and minutes, which initiated the process of man’s ‘alienation from nature’.

All this gets to be very absorbing, but also very complex. And I need to move on to the second conversation on time, in a manner of speaking, that I referred to at the outset. This was far more concrete. In a gathering at the home of a friend close to San Diego, a gentleman posed us all a question: why, do you think, he asked, is the numeral 4, almost routinely printed in Roman figures on classical clock and watch dials, appear as IIII — four vertical strokes — instead of the more correct IV, that is, one vertical bar preceding a V? To be candid, most of us had never even noticed the oddly written number, and when some looked at the watches on their wrists, they did find printed a IIII instead of the ‘correct’ IV. Watches featuring so-called Arabic numerals are obviously different, but a great many watches, and clocks, continue to use Roman numerals, and most of them have this odd feature, it was pointed out to us. How does one explain this?

I do not quite remember the answer we got, if one was given. But, greatly intrigued, I did, again, some reading on my own. It appears that in the horological world — that of making timepieces etc. — this remains one of the most frequently asked questions. And it has stayed a mystery for long years. There is certainly no agreement on the explanation: only guesses. There is the aesthetic explanation, for one. The use of IIII has continued to this day, it has been stated, because, occurring as it does on the right half of the face of the clock, it balances, visually, the ‘heavy’ numeral VIII on the left side. Else, the right half would be too ‘light’. Perhaps. There is another explanation at hand, too. Using four vertical bars, it is said, builds a dial that has four-hour indications using a I; four indications using a V, and the remaining four using an X. Symmetry is the key, according to this.

But there is at least one more explanation, a more classical one. In the Roman alphabet, the letter I stands both for I and J; likewise, the letter V stands both for V and U. Because of this, the number IV can also be read as JU, which is the beginning of the name of the great JUPITER, supreme deity of the ancient Romans. For the name of the great god to appear on dials would have been inappropriate, in this view. Hence the practice of printing IIII instead of IV which goes back to very old times. Any takers? Or guesses?