Today, a reflection on creativity and time. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
David Landes's book,
Revolution in Time, begins by quoting
Lewis Mumford: "The clock is not merely a means of
keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing
Well, now! Synchronicity is a seductive enemy of
creativity. Didn't Mussolini begin by making the
trains run on time? I fight like a trapped animal
when anyone tries to schedule my time. A line from
the show Fantasticks tells us to
recall "that special place where once -- just once
-- you hid away in shadows from the tyranny of
time." Good advice! The first step on the way to
finding our creative center is turning off the
Landes reminds us that, in the 11th century,
Chinese water-clock making was far ahead of
Europe's. Soon after, China turned her back on
creative clock-making, and the West began driving
the technologies of time. Why did the West -- not
the East -- race to embrace mechanical time? Part
of the answer lies in tyranny of another kind.
Widespread time-telling became a democratic force
in the West, while Chinese time-telling stayed
within the Chinese court. Time never became the
property of the people.
When Jesuit missionaries went to China in the 16th
century, they found timekeeping in a deplorable
state. Even sundials were unreliable! So the
Jesuits used fine European clocks as gifts. The
Chinese regarded them as splendid toys -- and the
only element of a barbarian culture worth adopting.
Chinese palaces soon had chiming clocks in every
room. Yet high officials had to stand about in rain
and snow waiting for audiences with the emperor.
The audience began when the emperor said it did.
Time, however well-measured it was within the
palace, was the emperor's property -- to waste as
In the West, everyone used time. Out of accurate
time-keeping grew a new sense of scientific
precision. After lagging the Chinese for a
millennium, Western technology now leapt ahead. And
time -- once a biological sense and a fact of
nature -- was now defined by instruments. If time
was democratic, it also grew away from biology and
nature. We became slaves to clocks themselves. And
so poet Walter Benton wrote:
The clock-hand turns ... closes the circle upon
sucks us in like quicksand, receives us totally
without a raincheck or a parachute,
a key to heaven or the last long look ...
Possession in any form -- by people or by time --
is creativity's enemy. To function creatively we
have to claim freedom. That means being able to
turn off the tyranny of time. We must be within the
task -- or the idea. Creativity flows from the
bliss of the moment, untouched by time -- or by any
of the many tyrannies that've always attached
themselves to time.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Landes, D.S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and
the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983,
Part I, Finding Time.
Jones, T., and Schmidt, H., The
Fantasticks. New York: Avon Books, 1968,
1971, p. 54.
Benton, W., This Is My Beloved. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943, 1975, p. 3.
I am grateful to Thomas W. McConn, UH History
Department, for providing the Landes source.
For more on the subjective character of time, see
Episodes 1224, 986, and 538.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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