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Homo Horological : Wound Up and Springing forward

Updated on February 24, 2013

Caught in the mechanism

Homo Horological
Homo Horological

Why have we been allegorized as clockwork?

One of my favourite childhood songs was that spooky little number, My Grandfather's Clock by Henry Clay Work, in which the singer likens his late grandfather to a ticking, longcase or grandfather clock: it was bought on the morn of the day that he was born, and was always his treasure and pride; but it stopp'd short - never to go again - when the old man died. In her book, Pip Pip, Jay Griffiths rages against the ordering of contemporary life by the ticking of a clock - or more likely, the pulsating of an atom of caesium. Griffiths describes the Enlightenment, a time of scientific discovery than went from about 1600 to 1750 as a period which dug into the flesh of the human body and found not blood or nature but clockwork. It is a paradox that the more technological progress that we make, the more machine-like that humans are expected to become.

This is as much political as anything else. According to Griffiths, as early as the 1200s, the use of the clock had become indispensable to the smooth running of urban commerce. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me, said the eponymous Richard II in William Shakespeare's play, for now hath time made me his numbering clock. My thoughts are minutes. Shakespeare wrote his play Richard II in the late 1500s, about a king who lived from 1367 to 1400. The Renaissance writer's exploration of the medieval monarch's mind is truly extraordinary, endowing Richard with a self-consciousness that can almost be described as "modern". At this point in the play, the monarch is no longer in control of his own destiny. He is what other men chose him to be (or not to be). His time as a monarch has run its course. King Richard showed much prescience in understanding that the condition of being reduced to a mere, functioning mechanism was the lot of the common man.

Interestingly, the earliest clocks were made to be heard, not seen. They were placed high upon clock towers and struck the hour, calling clergy and lay people to pray. Clock dials, as we know them, did not emerge until the late 1300s. When they did, they used Roman numerals and not numbers to mark the hours. Domestic clocks did not become ubiquitous until the late 1600s, and then they were largely middle-class items. By the early 1800s a limited number of timepieces, including watches, began to bear numbered faces. Even today, however, dial clocks show Roman numerals, a reminder of their elitist "classical" past. In Great Expectations the novel by Charles Dickens, protagonist Pip describes the convict Abel Magwitch (whom he encounters in a graveyard): something clicked in his throat as if he had works in him like a clock, and was going to strike. Years later, Pip encounters Magwitch again and the convict seems still to be controlled by the mechanism: the click came into his throat which I well remembered. A little later in the story, Magwitch tells Pip of the unfortunate events of his life, events that have made him what he is.

Many years ago, after my first cursory reading of the novel, I simply dismissed the author's likening a human being with the workings of a clock with the extraordinary way that Dickens characterises the subjects of his novels. Many more readings of the book have enabled me to see how time and its passing are intricately intertwined with the themes of the story. Indeed, the entire text of Great Expectations is suffused with human reactions likened to mechanistic functions, ie, recoiling. I find it almost funny that the name of the hero is Pip. In a strange way, Abel Magwitch is time, springing back into Pip's life when it is most inconvenient and ending the "borrowed time" upon which he (Pip) has been living. And the unfortunate convict has been running out of control all his life, used and abused by everyone around him.

Even today, the managerial classes own and manage the time of the rest of us. It is no wonder that clockwork technology (though obsolete) and its language, "springing from", "striking", "wound up" and so on, have completely infiltrated our language and cultural consciousness. How do we rescue ourselves from the constraints of technology and machinery? In Great Expectations, Pip encounters the character Mr Wemmick. He works all day in lawyer Jaggers office and goes home in the evening to a house that he calls his castle. There, Wemmick lives with his father or Aged Parent, and keeps a pig, fowls and rabbits. He also grows cucumbers and other vegetables to put in his salads.

I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack Of All Trades, he tells Pip. When I go into the office, I Ieave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. That final clause is often quoted, but rarely acknowledged or analysed. This purpose-shifting by Wemmick, this ability to "switch" modes will be familiar to the modern person who holds down one or more jobs while fulfilling other domestic and social roles. The modern reader will also attest to the failure of this assumption of multiple roles to ever rescue anyone from the tyranny of the clock and that constant feeling of being a functioning machine. What will save us, I wonder? I hand that question over to the reader.


  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths, Flammingo, 1999
  • Richard II by William Shakespeare


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