Once upon a time, back when knights prickethed their steeds and swyfen was a national sport, folks did not have watches. Towns rarely had clocks. Although way back the Babylonians had pretty much set out minutes and hours, good old Piers Plowman was left pretty much on his own to figure out when he should be where. Sundials, graduated candles and hourglasses existed, but they were not too practical because they all required a fair bit of attention. Let’s face it, when you’re out digging a ditch, you’re not going to mess with these things. Time was centrally controlled in the community by whomever had the economic wherewithal to put effort into keeping time.
The only hitch with central control was that it was difficult to communicate the time throughout the community. Although monks had cells, they did not have cell phones. So if you wanted folks to round up and come on in, you rang the bell in you community’s church tower to broadcast the time. Of course this brings up the old chestnut of who keeps the time to the time keeper. Enter the alarm clock.
In 1335 in Milan’s Visconti’s Palace Chapel, a mechanical clock which rang each hour (no, it did not track minutes) was installed to remind the sacristan to ring the chapel bell to call the monks to vespers. This whizz-dong technology caught on so quickly that before you could say Holy Horologium, everyone who was anyone in Europe was throwing up clocks in their bell towers.
France’s Charles V put up a clock in his Palais Royal (now the Palais de Justice) in 1360, and Rouen’s clock went up in 1379. Across the Channel, the Salisbury Cathedral clock went up in 1396 (and was rebuilt in 1929), and the Wells Cathedral clock went up in 1392 (and now is in London’s Science Museum). Time was still a bit of a hazy concept (hey, they were fighting the Hundred Years’ War – their concept of time was significantly different from ours), but it was catching on, and the most powerful estates, Church and State, included it in the architecture of their cathedrals and palaces of power.
Over the centuries, local churches and municipalities took up clock towers as symbols of their solidity and power. In 1650 a clock was installed in a Boston church tower, and in 1716 a clock was installed in New York’s city hall. Look about any county seat in the USA today and you’re likely to find either a church, school, or government building with a prominently mounted clock.
Come the industrial revolution, time became even more important, and public business interests grew to prominence. In England the tie between business and politics solidified as the traditional landed ruling class was gradually replaced in Parliament by industrial magnates. By the 19th century, business and popular government were erecting their own power architectures. In 1844 Dent put up the Royal Exchange clock, and in 1854 his step-son put up Big Ben in the rebuilt Parliament. You knew when you had arrived in the power elite when you could afford to put up a massive building with a large public clock.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, banks have dominated the urban skyline, but more recently have had their place in the sun taken by the telecommunications industry. Thus Toronto’s beautiful turn-of-the-century churches, many with clocks, and it’s old City Hall were dwarfed by towers such as the Royal Trust Tower, the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower, the Scotia Bank Plaza, the Royal Bank Plaza, and the Bank of Montreal’s First Canadian Place, but now new structures such as BCE Place and the world’s tallest CN Tower begin to dominate. It is an architecture of economic might, and when it was still on a human scale, clocks were an important part of the towers, but now that the towers are so very tall, the clocks have become lost. We still build cathedrals, only they no longer have anything to do with religion or even with government.
And the local bank branches with their faulty digital signs proclaiming the time to a world in which we all have more watches and electronic clocks than we can keep track of? Just a vestige of a period when the banks’ public clock towers represented a cornerstone of social and economic stability.