What Time Is It?

     In 1338 a galley left Venice carrying a clock to India. We know this because something happened on the way and there was a lawsuit.
     What’s interesting about this is that it shows that by 1338 Western Europe was exporting machines to Asia.
     Why Europe and the West became the scientific and intellectual masters of the world is a puzzle. It was not at all a sure thing. The Arab historian Al-Jazari finished an encyclopedia of technology in 1205 after working on it for 25 years. Western Europe had no such thing at the time.
     Something happened – a lot of things happened – in the next century or so that would propel Europe beyond the Middle East and Asia, so far and so fast, that what we know as The West became the world leader in science, technology – and war – for the next 700 years.
     Economic historian Carlo Cipolla has a good explanation for why this happened: “We do not really know.”
     In his nifty little history, “Clocks and Culture,” Cipolla points out that for the first few centuries mechanical clocks were not notable for accuracy. They were so crude they mostly dispensed with minute hands, and towns or princes that scraped together enough scudos to buy one had to hire a “governor” to take care of it.
     The governor’s job was to reset the hand or hands a couple times a day. It was a tough job, for the governor generally had to climb the tallest bell tower in town to do it, and then lean out …
     The clocks were so inaccurate that until the mid 1500s, the governors had to reset them by sundial.
     Minutes and even hours back then didn’t mean as much as they do today. The clockmakers, and the princes and towns, were far more impressed by the saints and angels that danced around as the clock more or less kept time, and the figures came out and whacked bells more or less on the hour.
     The Arabs and the Chinese had clocks before the West did, but these tended to be run with water – not by mechanics. Like the early European clocks, they were more notable for having little birds or animals whirling around on them than for actually telling time.
     What distinguished Western Europe’s clocks from those of the Arabs and the East was that the West’s clocks were mechanical.
     Cipolla says that if Leonardo da Vinci had never been born, the history of Western technology would be the same. What’s remarkable about Leonardo, and other Western artists and artisans, is that in their idle moments – and in their busy moments – they sketched gears and machines, while throughout the rest of the world people sketched flowers and animals.
     Surviving records indicate that Europeans became fascinated with machines long before the rest of the world did. The entire society became fascinated. Cipolla says Europeans loved mechanics so much that for more than a century clockmakers added more gears to clocks not to make them more accurate – they did it just because people liked the gears.
     Whatever the causes for this – and any cultural phenomenon has multiple causes – this fascination with mechanics, and the number of people who caught it, surely was a key factor in the rise of the West.
     The West came to dominate the world, in other words, because of the stuff that Western people thought about.
     This statement is obviously true, but so generalized there’s not much you can do with it.
     Perhaps there is one thing.
     The Christian West has been at war with the Muslim world, on and off, for 1,400 years. We are at war with it again.
     Putting aside all causes, effects, colonialism, ideology – the lot of it – one thing is clear: the West’s science and military technology, our technology in general, is so far ahead of the Muslim world’s that it’s not really a fair fight. Until it gets down to that alley by alley thing.
     Yet the belligerent Christian morons in the West who started this war with the Muslims – or restarted it – do not seem to appreciate that it’s our technology alone that is protecting us.
     Did these Christian morons realize that, they surely would want to keep our science and technology ahead of the rest of the world’s. But that’s not the case.
     Our Western Christian morons seem determined to blinker our science and technology as surely as the Muslim world blinkered its own.
     Our Christian morons wish to constrain the biological sciences by words written 2,000 years ago in Aramaic, before people knew what oxygen is, what a cell is.
     They wish to blind our climate science – and have blinded it – by applying religious fatwas as insane and stupid as the fatwas of Muslim clerics.
     And our Christian morons, many of them powerful people, wish to blinker our arts in the same way the Muslim morons do.
     We people of the West created modern civilization by using our brains. For the past eight years – for nearly a generation, actually – since Ronald Reagan took office – our moronic Christian leaders have been giving away the store, trashing the store, turning it over to fanatical idiots. They have demanded that Western scientists set their clocks by sundials.
     What time is it?

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