Scientific and technical instruments at home


Waterbury Cloks advertisement from Ladies Home Journal, 1942

The first known references to mechanical timekeepers in Spain and other European countries date back to the 14th century, corresponding to expensive and uncommon objects purchased for cathedrals –paid by the church or by the city hall– and aimed at regulating religious ceremonies and services. In the late 14th century to the 17th century, public clocks were set up in monasteries, castles and palaces, and after that (in Spain mostly in the 16th, but sooner in other countries), they were also present in churches and city halls (Montañés, 1954, 61-80).

Their purpose was regulating the life of important villages and towns; and such it was for centuries, as it is shown in the following reference, a letter sent in 1836 to a clockmaker by the major of Escoussans, a commune in southern France (Tarn department):

Il y a environ quatre mois que vous avez chez vous l’horloge d’Escoussens. Vous aviez promis de la réparer de suite et de nous la renvoyer. Je suis fort étonné, Monsieur, que vous vous permettiez de retenir si longtemps un objet aussi utile et aussi nécessaire à la population d’Escoussens et dont la privation excite tous les jours son mécontentement. Vous devez concevoir que cette privation est d’autant plus sensible que, depuis un temps immémorial, les habitants de cette commune étaient habitués à avoir dans cette horloge une règle et un guide dans leur manière d’agir. Aussi ont-ils manifesté publiquement leur mécontentement. J’en ai été touché sensiblement et c’est ce qui m’a déterminé à vous écrire officiellement pour vous prévenir que si, d’ici à huit jours, l’horloge n’est pas réintégrée à sa place ou, si vous ne me faites connaître, par une prompte réponse, les motifs qui vous empêchent de nous en faire le renvoi immédiatement, je vais prendre des mesures pour vous actionner en justice. (Escande, 2010)

The first domestic clocks were also made in the 14th century, but these early devices, made mainly for kings and princes, had a different purpose. They were unusual objects which throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries were only accessible for the very wealthy. The first watches were made around 1500, but they were also extremely expensive and extraordinarily rare throughout the century. They were more valued as curiosities and for their decoration than for its usefulness as timekeepers (Ward, 1958).

In the case of domestic items then, its purpose was more symbolic than practical, and its economic value more important than its accuracy. Time-keepers, made using luxurious materials, represented its owner’s wealth, status and taste. In fact, up until the middle of the seventeenth century –with the exception of some German examples–, most of these pieces only had the hour hand, and an error of a quarter of an hour a day was not unusual. In fact it was customary to employ a sundial to check a watch when opportunity offered.

As F. A. B. Ward points out:

Throughout the sixteenth century watches must have been great rarities, and were possessed only by the very wealthy. Their timekeeping was very poor and they were valued as curiosities and for their decoration rather than as timekeepers (Ward, 1958, 25).

Mens’ models were kept in the “fob” pocket, attached to a chain hanging outside it, while the womens’, similar in size or ornament, were designed to be hanged as necklaces on her waist. They were showy fashion accessories indicating their owner’s wealth.

The addition of the pendulum to the clock and of the balance-spring to the watch at themid 17th century transformed these devices into instruments of real utility (Ward, 1958, v y 17). These played an important role in the case of both astronomy and navigation –especially around the end of the 16th century, when long sea voyages started to be common– and astronomy. Around the 1730’s, the first timekeepers accurate enough for navigation were constructed, and in about 1800, observatory clocks were accurate to a few tenths of a second per day.


Advertisement, Waterbury watches (1880s-1890s)

In the case of domestic items, great accuracy was not needed, but it became another symbolic value added to the richness and social position that both clocks and watches represented.

Throughout the nineteenth century, sooner or later depending on the countries –for example in the early decades in the case of England, and in the final ones in the case of Spain–, products resulting from the technological and industrial development started to be present in European homes. This growing presence was not only due to the new production and fabrication methods, but also to the faster means of transport of the materials, and to the new communication media which contributed to increase sales thanks to advertisements (Garvan, 1981, 620).

Apart from the new devices purposed for making existence more comfortable and simplifying housework, previously expensive objects, requiring many craftsmen’ working hours, were now produced in large numbers at a lower cost. Yet still expensive, some of these items were at least accessible for a sector of the middle class whose houses started to become enriched and filled with material goods (Garvan, 1981, 610).

In the specific case of watches and clocks, in the 1800s these previously inaccessible timepieces started to become cheaper and available to a growing middle class who purchased them in large numbers, seeking new symbols of status. This was thanks mainly to the use of machine tools in their manufacture, mass production techniques, and the substitution of expensive brass movements for wood ones.

But these devices would not be equally accessible in all the European countries. For example, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the only clocks that could be seen advertised in Spanish newspapers were those sold at second hand objects auctions:


VENTA PÚBLICA. Calle de la Concepción Jerónima número 9. = Mañana jueves 24 del corriente desde las once se subastan los efectos siguientes:

Un anteojo de larga vista. =  Uno idem Ingles de idem. = Una silla ungara para montar. = Unos pendientes de diamantes y perlas. = Una berlina. = Un caballo castaño. = Una mesa de juego de caoba. = Un tremol con su luna. = Un reloj de comedor. – Un piano de caoba, […]

Apart from timekeepers, other technological objects entered bourgeois and rich households. It was not only those related to leisure time that entered, like magic lanterns, stereoscopes or optical devices, but also some scientific instruments, such as the barometer or the thermometer, whose presence had been frequent in palaces and aristocratic houses in the previous century. There were several reasons for the introduction of such scientific devices. First of all, barometers and thermometers makers usually had been trained as opticians and watchmakers’, so these items were usually found amongst the objects sold in their workshops.

Secondly, these devices represented progress, modernity and prosperity. Possessing them was a sign of power, prestige and distinction, values that were transmitted to society through different ways, like international exhibitions, public lectures, or leisure clubhouses (Zozaya, 2008, 769-770). In the 19th century, technology represented man mastering nature (Guijarro y González, 2015, 126-129), and these types of measurement instruments allowed man to quantify it. They offered the possibility of looking at nature through science; they mediated nature, and represented the power of man over it. Therefore, a man with a barometer was like a magician able to predict nature’s behaviour.

1931 Taylor Stormguide Barometer original vintage advertisement. A rare gift for men

1931 advertisement of the Taylor Stormoguide Barometer

Finally, in the late 19th century these items would acquire an added significance in the context of a growing interest in health, wellness and the introduction of hygienic doctrine. Obviously, publicity had a lot of say in this situation, and instrument makers knew how to take advantage of it, as reflected the following text by from the catalogye published by the instrument makers Negretti and Zambra:

To the invalid, the importance of predicting with tolerable accuracy the changes that are likely to occur in the weather, cannot be over-rated. Many colds would be prevented, if we could know that the morning so balmy and bright, would subside into a cold and cheerless afternoon. Even to the robust, much inconvenience may be prevented by a due respect to the indications of the hygrometer and the barometer, and the delicate in health will do well to regard its warnings. (Negretti & Zambra, 1864, 23-24)

In sum, the presence of all these devices in the past was aimed at covering nothing but “superfluous” needs of human beings, which indeed constitute the most important needs. In the words of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher:

“La técnica es la producción de lo superfluo: hoy y en la época paleolítica” (Ortega, 2014, 72); because “el bienestar y no el estar es la necesidad fundamental para el hombre, la necesidad de las necesidades” (Ortega, 2014, 70). According to him, “Actos técnicos –decíamos- no son aquéllos en que el hombre procura satisfacer directamente las necesidades que la circunstancia o naturaleza le hace sentir, sino precisamente aquellos que llevan a reformar esa circunstancia eliminando en lo posible de ella esas necesidades, suprimiendo o menguando el azar y el esfuerzo que exige satisfacerlas. […] La técnica es lo contrario de la adaptación del sujeto al medio, puesto que es la adaptación del medio al sujeto” (Ortega, 2014, 67).

Technology is not simple meant to satisfy biological needs, the necessary conditions for life – “técnica no se reduce a facilitar la satisfacción de necesidades de ese género” –, but to  “proporcionar al hombre cosas y situaciones innecesarias en ese sentido” (Ortega, 2014, 68).


References and further readings

ANDREWES, J. H. (2006), « A chronicle of timekeeping », Scientific American, february, vol. 16, n.º 1s, pp. 46-55.

ESCANDE, Jean N. D. (2010), Escoussens sous la royauté; suivi de Les bourgeois du château, Escoussans, Château d’Escoussens Editions.

GARVAN, Anthony N. B. (1981), “Efectos de la tecnología en la vida doméstica, 1830-1880”, en Melvin Kranzberg y Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. (eds.), Historia de la Tecnología. La técnica en Occidente, de la Prehistoria a 1900, vol. II, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili.

GUIJARRO, Víctor, and GONZÁLEZ, Leonor (2015), La comprensión cultural de la Tecnología, Madrid, Universitas.

El indicador de las novedades, de los espectáculos y de las artes, 23 octubre 1822, p. 4.

MONTAÑÉS Fontenla, Luis (1954), Biblioteca literaria del relojero. II. Capítulos de la relojería en España, Madrid, Roberto Carbonell Blasco.

MORRISON, Allison (2007), Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot: Ashgate.

NEGRETTI & ZAMBRA, (1864), A treatise on Meteorological Instruments, London (reprinted in 1996 by Baros Books, Wiltshire, England)

ORTEGA y GASSET, José, (2014, 1ª ed. 1939), Ensimismamiento y alteración. Meditación de la técnica y otros ensayos, Madrid, Alianza editorial

WARD, F. A. B. (1958), Handbook of the Collection illustrating Time Measurement, Part I: Historical review, Londres, Science Museum, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

ZOZAYA MONTES, María (2008), El Casino de Madrid: ocio, sociabilidad, identidad y representación social (PhD Thesis), and the published version: ZOZAYA MONTES, María (2016), Identidades en juego: Formas de representación social del poder de la élite en un espacio de sociabilidad masculino, 1836-1936, Madrid, Siglo XXI.