At 4:45pm precisely, GMT, on 15th February 1894 the grounds of Greenwich Park, London – home of the Royal Observatory, and a clock we’ll discuss later – are shaken by a resounding boom. Staff at the observatory recalled a “sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air”. They peered out the windows in trepidation attempting to work out what just happened. A park warden and a group of students ran towards the epicenter of the blast – where a solitary young man lay dying. The young man, who died not long after in a local hospital, was identified as 26 year old Frenchman Martial Bourdin.
Bourdin was a member of the Autonomie Club – a collection of anarchists who had largely escaped more authoritarian regimes on the continent, and who, once in Britain had either become radicalized or found kinship in the group. To pin down what constitutes an anarchist – well, their beliefs could run the gamut from Communism to Libertarianism, and all sorts in between – but the unifying themes were the rejection of authoritarian figures and hierarchies, a distrust of all current institutions – and often a wish to destroy society so they could build a new society based on their particular beliefs. Often they hoped to achieve this through terrorist acts. The Autonomie club had come to the attention of many in 1892, when a bomb making facility was rumbled in Walsall, North West England.
That Bourdin would expire from his injuries was a given – when inspecting the scene his blood, flesh and bone left a 60 metre blast radius. That he hadn’t intended to blow himself up was assumed – when he left Westminster that day he was carrying a considerable sum of money. Inspectors took this as evidence he was planning to skip the country for the continent following the blast. It has always been assumed he lost his footing while nervously walking a zigzag pathway to his intended target, and on stumbling, the bomb went off.
His intended target has always been a matter of speculation. It probably wasn’t the well guarded naval facility that was the observatory – chances are at most Bourdin may have blown a hole in their fence – perhaps killed a guard or two; or a crowd of Londoners – on Thursday afternoons the park was quiet… but the 24 hour gate clock on the grounds – a clock which had counted the time with deadly accuracy since 1852.
To understand why someone might want to blow up a clock, we have to consider the concepts of ‘noble myths’, that ‘time’ hasn’t always been exactly as it is now – and that for most conveniences that improve our lives, there is often a corollary effect which makes our lives worse off.
First, to time itself. The Earth is in constant motion in a couple of ways. One way is it spins on its axis – in a direction we call East, at a speed we measure as either 1,000 miles per hour or 1,600 kilometers per hour. The mile comes from an estimate of 1,000 paces by a Roman soldier (in Latin the ‘mille passus’). A Kilometer is 1,000 metres, and a metre is 1 ten millionth the distance from the equator to the north pole. A twenty four hour day is a close approximation of the time it takes for Earth to spin one time on it’s axis (it actually takes approximately 23 hours 56 minutes to fully spin, but close enough). The other way we move of course is in an elliptical orbit of the sun – which gives us our year, but let’s skip the specifics of that.
We get divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds the way we do because 5,000 years ago the Sumerians worked with a duodecimal (base 12) and sexigesimal (base 60) system rather than our preferred decimal (base 10) system. The Babylonians kept base 12 and 60 alive in their mathematics and astronomy because it suited what they were doing. The Greeks brought the concept back to Europe in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, 336 – 324 BC. They used those systems, particularly for navigation and trigonometry.
Going on knowledge the world was spherical, Hipparchus of Nicaea broke new ground when he divided a globe up into 360 degrees – a derivation of 6 x 60. The Roman Ptolemy of Alexandria further developed the language by subdividing the lines into minute (small) parts ‘minutes’ and a smaller second ‘seconds’, division. He divided by 60 both times. In the 16th century our technology was good enough to make clocks which could tell the time beyond the hour (the very first mechanical clocks in the 14th century only had one arm, for the hour). We borrowed the terms minutes and seconds from Ptolemy of Alexandria via thousands of years of precursors, sexigesimal framework and all. We really could have divided our time any number of ways; by 10, 15, 20, 200 it doesn’t matter- but this is the common story we all adopted, simple as that. It had history and a commonality in it’s favour- and as such it gives us a common, understood framework to work, plan, explain, develop from and exploit- It allowed a framework to direct others by, so is a kind of noble myth if you will.
Oh, and just to reiterate – we had hours, days, weeks, months, years – we had the words minutes and seconds; but we did not measure our time in minutes and seconds until the technology of the 16th century allowed us to.
If you put aside all of the scientific advantages of measuring to the second and beyond (Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe being one of the first to work by such small increments – one day we will come back to Tyco, his brass nose, drunken pet moose, and embarrassing death) – and look at the lives of ordinary working folk you can see how an accurate conception of time may have brought several advantages in organizing your life outside of work, but when coupled with an increasingly industrialized world it also enslaved a lot of people to it’s incessant tick, tock, tick, tock.
For one as production moved away from a model with an artisan making one item from start to finish, then doing the next one – to a mass production model where maybe a dozen people made one part only, over and over. Focus changed to how quickly a person can make that one thing? To a business owner this is efficiency. To a worker this presents a scenario where an artisan, once at liberty to take their time over a varied task, now had one simple – perhaps boring task – and could find themselves having to account for their every second if deemed to be ‘swinging the lead’. In 1748, when Benjamin Franklin offered the advice ‘time is money’ it was clear the criteria for what construed a good job had tipped in favour of efficiency.
In Bourdin’s time, time and productivity experts like Frederick Winslow Taylor had codified your every second into a science – his method, commonly referred to as Taylorism carried the official brand ‘Scientific management’ with good reason. While Mr Taylor suggested workers needed regular breaks (so they could recharge their batteries and work harder overall, not out of any particular kindness) he also had every task analyzed to the smallest increment. He introduced the concept of ‘soldiering’ to the workforce – the belief that a worker will do the minimum they can before they get into trouble. Believing soldiering to be “the greatest evil with which the working people… are now afflicted”, he advocated the use of slave-driving managers to crack the whip. While Martial Bourdin himself may have felt a slave under the shackles of a factory owners obsessive drive be the most productive, let’s not ignore productivity is measured against time – then in minutes and seconds, on new-fangled, accurate clocks. Factory workers were slaves to time as much as a hectoring supervisor.
In the 19th century this adherence to time took more of a twist. As marine chronometers were more in use on ships, to more accurately assess longitude, and people travelled through time zones more – as telegraphs, then later the telephone made our world smaller – and as railways required some uniformity of time zones, clocks across the country, and the world began to follow a more common pattern. Towns could no longer have one town on their own time, and the next town on theirs, a few minutes different. While this seems a good thing – I would argue it is – to many an anarchist like Bourdin this would have seemed another way central governments enforced their will on the people. Only a few months earlier, on November 18th 1883, the USA had finally managed to get their railways running on a common time scheme – following the British who had done so back in 1847. The USA was trying to plan their burgeoning railway system around 300 local time zones before they made the change.
Only a few months after the Bourdin incident, on November 1st 1884, the world would officially assign 24 time zones at the international meridian conference, in Washington DC. Greenwich Mean Time – based on this twenty four hour clock in a London park, where months earlier a young man hopped aboard a time shackled train, and disembarked with the intent of killing time, blew himself to pieces – that Greenwich Mean time, developed I might add, in part so large imperial powers could run their empires of conquered peoples more efficiently- THAT Greenwich Mean Time suddenly became the beat we all danced to. I have little doubt the clock was Martial Bourdin’s target. To Martial Bourdin the clock wasn’t a convenience, or a wonder – the damn thing was enslaving the lot of us.
Now, as a coda to this story, in June 2019, I don’t think it matters which day (Ok the article I saved to favorites when I read it says June 23rd 2019) the Norwegian Island of Sommaroy announced the tale we tell ourselves about time no longer served a purpose for them. When you are up high in the Arctic circle and have a 70 day run without a night the downsides began to outweigh the upsides. Effective immediately – whatever that meant to them anymore, time did not exist for the 350 residents. If you ask any historian, or historical writer like myself, if you could live in any time in history I’m pretty sure most of us will pick now (edit: I wrote this a few months ago, some of us would not pick right now in the COVID outbreak obviously – Simone). Now is not necessarily the best time we will have, but it sure beats dying of typhus, cholera, or being murdered by marauding Vikings, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, or for that matter British imperial soldiers. However I bet I’m not the only one that looks a little enviously at those who were less a slave to the clock than we are today. Are not the best times, those idle moments where you have nowhere you need to be, nothing you need to do, and you can relax in a chair with a good book?
Unfortunately it turns out Sommaroy were scamming us – it was a ploy by the tourism authority to get more people to come see the land that time forgot.
Oh, as a coda to the coda, fans of English literature – Joseph Conrad based his novel ‘The Secret Agent’ on the tale of Martial Bourdin. It was my introduction to Conrad’s writing, and is a very readable book, check it out.