The Corner

Economy & Business

The Case of the Clocks

Clock at the Hauptbahnhof railway station in Berlin, Germany (Hannibal/Reuters)

Economists attempting to understand the relationship between new technology and productivity growth could do worse than looking to the early days of the humble public clock, as Lars Boerner, from the London School of Economics, and Battista Severgnini, from the Copenhagen Business School, have done in a paper for LSE’s Economic History Working Papers series.

It might seem obvious that new high-tech inventions can be an economic boon — and in this case, the authors do find that early adopters of the clock saw high population growth, a proxy for premodern economic growth, of about 30 percentage points between 1500 and 1700 — but not everyone agrees. “A well-established literature,” Boerner and Severgnini point out, “has claimed that the impact is negative because advanced machines lower wages, which in turn reduce population and income growth.” In the late 1980s, moreover, the economist Robert Solow found that the adoption of computers coincided with a productivity slowdown in the 1970s. And even today, fretting about our future among the robots is commonplace.

But in the case of the clocks, the story is relatively happy—and relatively straightforward. First, Boerner and Severgnini set out to answer why some cities became early adopters in the 13th century. They find that those locations that experienced solar eclipses in Medieval times were the most likely to take up the technology. Eclipses and other astrological phenomena had been associated with Biblical events, and so the desire to study and understand the heavens was high, particularly in the monasteries. The authors posit that mechanical clocks could have developed in response to that curiosity and, perhaps, also out of a familiarity with other technologies, such as astrolabes and water clocks, that were used in astronomy.

As for the cities that experienced eclipses and built early public mechanical clocks, most had standout population growth in the centuries that followed. “There exists broad evidence from the 15th century onwards that the public clocks were used to coordinate such activities in many cities. The organization of markets neatly documents this change. Whereas prior to public clocks, the market time typically started with sunset and ended at noon, with the introduction of clocks, market times were determined by the stroke of the hour. Furthermore, market time was shortened and market access was granted to different groups of people at different times. For instance, market regulations offered time-differentiated access to consumers, retailers, and wholesalers.” Clocks also led to the implementation of pay-per-hour in many cities and allowed universities to better set start and end times for lectures. Simply put, the authors write, the clock was “an information technology that improves coordination and reduces transaction time.” No wonder that it led to growth.

Of course, it didn’t lead to growth right away or in every case. Boerner and Severgnini point to one example in which, as a result of a guild dispute in France, the clock was used to limit working hours and output to restrict competition. In truth, the clock was a productivity booster when the right work culture developed around it — and that culture “evolved slowly and gradually.”

Which brings to mind some of our present-day dilemmas. Will advances in automation cause massive social dislocation, as some scholars warn? Or will the rise of artificial intelligence give new life to the Great Enrichment? That will depend almost entirely on how we choose to respond.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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