Learning a lesson from a clock

Reihan Salam of National Review Online ties the history of the public clock to an economic lesson we still can learn today.

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.” …

… 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.” … 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.
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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.”

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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