ecture Seven: Technology in the Middle Ages (Con’t)
Origins of The Mechanical Clock
It is extremely difficult to determine who invented this and when it was invented
- This is because it is referred to as “horologia” in older texts
- Horologia includes all time keeping devices, including sun dials. Therefore
when something called a “horologia” is referred to, it is unclear what the
actual device was.
- “Cloche” is another word used to describe clocks, however in French it also
refers to bells.
One of the main debates is whether the mechanical clock originated in China or
The Price/Needham Thesis
Derrick Price and Joseph Needham argue that the mechanical clock was
invented in China. This is also referred to as the “Fallen Angel Thesis”
The thesis suggests that the mechanical clock was a less sophisticated
technology that came out of more advanced Chinese technologies at that time.
The example given for this was the advanced water clock, created by Su Sung in
China. This device was extremely complex compared to the mechanical clock, so
it is believed that the mechanical clock was a type of by-product of this
After the mechanical clock is invented in China, it diffuses its way into Western
Rejection of this Thesis
The major device associated with European clocks is called the verge and foliot
mechanism, which is significantly different than that of the Chinese clocks.
Another problem with this thesis is the difficulty of proving technical diffusion of
the mechanical clock from China to Europe.
Why a Mechanical Clock? It is generally accepted that the mechanical clock was invented in Europe,
however the main question is: why would Europeans need to invent this
Mumford and Landes suggest that this came from the needs of the church.
- Monks in the monasteries needed a way to keep time to perform their
- This is criticized because other time-keeping devices were fulfilling the
needs of the church at this time. It is not till much later that more accurate
devices were necessary
Another hypothesis is that other time-keeping devices that were being used at
this time became more problematic as time went on.
- The sundial did not allow time to be kept at night
- The water clock could not tell time when the water froze (Winter)
Why was this Popular in Europe?
Landes had many arguments
- Chinese did not have any needs for accurate time keeping devices
- Chinese rejected all foreign technologies
- Chinese had too much ego to accept this foreign technology
- Chinese thought clocks were toys, as opposed to valuable instruments
- The Chinese were very advanced in technology, and therefore would have
the desire and need for this technology
- By stating that t