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The Industrial Revolution and Time

Updated Friday, 30 August 2019
Alun C Davies explains how developments in timekeeping and the way people viewed time played an important part in making the industrial revolution possible.

Hoover dam clock

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Before the middle of the eighteenth century - the beginning of the Industrial Revolution - perceptions of time were generally hazy, (except perhaps for a handful of scientists). The means by which the passage of time were measured were rough and ready.

A stick in the ground – or any conspicuous landmark – cast shadows whose lengths varied as the day proceeded. Sundials were a sophisticated version, though cloud cover rendered them useless. Indoors, candles helped, with burnout times approximated.

Factory clock [Image: *kitto under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]
Factory clock [Image: *kitto under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

Better still were hour-glasses, like giant egg timers, standard items for pulpits and navigators. Those with mechanical skills, in ancient Greece and in medieval Europe, puzzled over the construction of time-measuring devices whose motive power derived either from an unwinding spring or falling weights and whose ‘escapements’ might be regulated in some way.

From the late seventeenth century the accuracy of the mechanisms gradually improved, especially to the benefit of astronomers and other scientists.

But for most people in an overwhelmingly agricultural economy the natural rhythms of the days and the seasons sufficed. Time was local.

The tolling of church bells to call parishioners to worship or funerals, or to mark occasional calamities or celebrations, occurred at times determined by sun dials.

These were calibrated to the astronomical readings of an enthusiastic squire or vicar. Outside the great observatories, such as Greenwich, the first long-case clocks possessed only one hand to give a rough idea of the time before or after an approximate hour. Greater accuracy than twenty minutes a day was difficult to achieve.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that, in two essential ways. The first transformation occurred in how the passage of time was perceived.

People began to behave and organise themselves in a new way. Second, and equally important, there was a revolution in the way in which clocks and watches were made. Ironically, although Great Britain was the home of the Industrial Revolution – it was the ‘first industrial nation’ as one historian famously termed it – the new methods of manufacturing timepieces occurred elsewhere, as the essential features of the Industrial Revolution diffused beyond these islands.

The series What The Industrial Revolution Did for Us directly and indirectly touches on changes in the use and perception of time. We see how Captain Cook pioneered the application of the newly developed chronometers to ‘carry’ Greenwich time with him to the other ends of the earth.

This enabled him to determine longitude more easily and accurately than before, and to attain remarkable precision in his charts and maps, (with an exactness barely improved before satellites).

The revolution in ocean navigation proved of incalculable benefit to Britain’s commercial prosperity and national security, as the merchant marine and the Royal Navy became equipped with the equivalents of today’s computers.

Lime Street Station clock [Image:77krc under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]
Lime Street Station clock [Image:77krc under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

The Clerkenwell district of London, location of Britain’s most skilled horological craftsmen, became the Silicon Valley of the era.

But there is one crucial irony. Its products – beautiful clocks, exquisite watches, and prodigiously accurate chronometers – were handcrafted empiricisms, not the standardised products of a factory. Mass produced timekeepers came later, and not in the country that pioneered factory production, but the United States.

A mention of ‘factory production’ reminds us of one of its pioneers, Thomas Arkwright. The factories of Arkwright and others involved not only housing large new machines but also applying new kinds of business organisation.

Co-ordination was essential to bring together supplies of raw materials, to organise workers and distribute their output. No point in having workers turn up at any old time, hoping that someone had brought in the cotton or wool to be processed, or hoping that someone had cleared yesterday’s output.

Factories demanded considerable time-management. Workers had to be woken by ‘knockers-up’; shifts needed to be measured by a factory clock.

As the industrial economy and its transportation network became more and more complex, bulky raw materials and finished products needed synchronised services from canal companies, mail coaches and, later, railways.

For railway passengers, especially, the use everywhere of local time (calculated when the sun was overhead at noon) spelled confusion.

Agreed timetables were essential, as was a standard time. Railways ultimately imposed Greenwich Time across Great Britain.

What about the effect the Industrial Revolution had on the methods of producing clocks and watches? London and the provincial cities were lucrative luxury markets for the products of skilled craftsmen.

But because of a gradual improvement in incomes as a result of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, the market for timepieces was widening.

From the middle eighteenth century the impact of the application of the pendulum and other technical improvements to clocks enabled rural craftsmen, often part-time clockmaker-farmers, to manufacture cheap long case clocks that were respectably accurate.

A watch from 1890 [Image: Jin's Diary 87 under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]
A watch from 1890 [Image: Jin's Diary 87 under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

More precisely, they assembled and finished the small clock components made in Birmingham’s new ‘toy’ factories after the 1770s. Their cottage grandfather clocks were relatively simple mechanisms in bulky clock cases; they needed winding daily but they cost only a few pounds.

They were among the first ‘consumer-durables’ bought at the bottom end of the market. “When any group of workers passed into a phase of improving living standards”, observed the late E. P. Thompson, “the acquisition of timepieces was one of the first things noted by observers.”

So, small farmers and artisans acquired thirty-hour pull-wind clocks for their cottages. And in the new industrial towns some of the skilled, better-paid, workers acquired their own personal status symbols: cheap, bulky (‘turnip-sized’) pocket watches.

The parts were made and sometimes assembled in Liverpool and Coventry and, increasingly, Switzerland. They were not invariably accurate or reliable, but they created a demand for a better watch ‘next time’.

However, neither Switzerland, Great Britain, nor any place else in Europe, developed the quintessential features of factory mass production – standardised, interchangeable parts – and applied them successfully to the production of cheap timepieces.

It was in New England, between about 1816 and 1837, that Eli Terry redesigned and simplified clock movements to enable large quantities to be constructed and assembled. Initially they were made almost entirely of wood and then, after 1837, of cheap brass.

The clocks were easy to set up, and could be placed anywhere, on a table, mantel, or wall. They sold for as little as $10 in 1810, and soon after for much much less. They sold by the hundreds of thousands, in the United States and Europe.

Factory production of watches proved more difficult. Their tolerances were finer. But the stream of technological innovations that shaped the design and production of Yankee clocks led, eventually, to the millions of watches annually produced by the great firms of Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton and Waterbury.

The latter’s price prompted the immortal advertising slogan “The watch that made the dollar famous”. The Industrial Revolution had not only changed our attitude and responses to time. It also revolutionised the way timepieces were produced.

Henceforth, there was a clock for every mantelpiece, and a watch for every person.


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