In today’s New York Times, critic Edward Rothstein asks how Western civilization emerged “out of what was once a diverse set of has-been or backwater cultures” and discusses Robert Friedel’s new book A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. Rothstein remarks that Freidel’s book “is a rare, detailed, nontheoretical survey that exposes the veins of invention that run through Western culture, creating an astonishing picture of achievement through its careful accumulation of small details.” Here is an excerpt from the review:
Mr. Friedel surveys the kinds of inventions and technologies that developed in the West over centuries, compiling a roster of innovation that encompasses everything from textiles to time telling. Under his firm touch it begins to be possible to feel something like the primal pulse of this culture.
Consider, for example, the earliest examples of mechanical clocks in the 14th century. Somehow they had to use a continuous mechanical force — the pull of a suspended weight slowly falling — to measure discrete intervals of time. This was done through an “escapement,” which Mr. Friedel argues, could be “the single most important mechanical invention to emerge from the Middle Ages.” An escapement was originally a toothed wheel turned by the slowly dropping weight. The evenly spaced notches on the wheel were used to spur evenly timed mechanical movements: Divided space is turned into divided time. The turning wheels of a clock could also trace different measures of time, including the motions of the moon and the planets, as if its mechanism were a model of the heavens.
By the 16th century it was clear that this achievement was the reflection of certain beliefs about the world. The principles applied to the turning of a wheel in a clock were seen as mirroring, in some way, the workings of cosmic spheres. There was a faith that the world was governed by the same laws that governed the smallest of human inventions. This also reflected confidence in human ability to comprehend that world and replicate its organization. This is the faith of the scientific enterprise itself: Human ability is honored as much as universal principles.
At the same time the development of such mechanical clocks permitted the formation of certain kinds of organized human community. Mr. Friedel suggests the clocks may have evolved out of the need in monasteries to create reliable schedules for prayers. The clock created a standard for time keeping, a public accounting that could not be reliably achieved with hourglasses or sundials. Clocks created community.
Read the whole review here.