Technologies of Time (Fall Online Course)

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"What is time?" This free course with historian Darin Hayton, PhD, will explore the changing ways we measure, use and experience time.

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Technologies of Time with Professor Darin Hayton

6 Wednesdays, October 6 to November 17, 6:30 to 7:45pm.

This course will be held online using Zoom. Registration is required for each student (even if you share the screen). You will receive confirmation of your registration by email with information about how to access the Zoom meetings.

“For what is time? Who can easily and briefly to explain it? Who can comprehend it even in thought, so as to express it in words? And yet what in speaking do we more familiarly and knowingly make mention of than time? And surely we understand it well enough when we speak of it. We also understand it when speaking to another person we hear it. What, then, is time? If nobody asks me, I know. But if I wish to explain it to the person asking me, I do not know.” St. Augustine, Confessions, Book XI.

St. Augustine highlights the challenge and promise of studying time. It is at once familiar and foreign, obvious and inscrutable. We know it when we invoke it and when we hear it used. Like Augustine, this course is not concerned so much with the philosophical questions about the nature of time, but rather about how time is used, how we experience time, how we mark, calculate, measure, and track time. And how time has become a type of technology that is used to measure, discipline, and track people. Astronomical observations, sundials, clocks, calendars, calculations, vibrating Cs atoms, and almanacs are some of the technologies that humans have developed to control time and to control people.

Course Schedule

1. Wednesday, October 6, 2021 – Astronomy, Seasons, and the Experience of Time The first class will explore the ways time was linked to human experience in Greek and Roman antiquity. We will see how time grew out of traditional observations of the planetary motions and the rising of constellations. We will also look at some of the difficult problems early scholars tried to solve through detailed mathematical analyses and ingenuity.

NO CLASS – October 13, 2021

2. Wednesday, October 20, 2021 – Telling Time in Antiquity: Sundials and Waterclocks Scholars in Greek and Roman antiquity developed a variety of time-telling and time-tracking technologies. The most common were sundials and waterclocks. We will trace not only the development of these technologies, but also how they became linked to imperial projects, especially in the Roman Empire. We will also look at the growing community of craftsmen who specialized in making sundials.

3. Wednesday, October 27, 2021 – Calendars in Pre-modern Europe The calendar continued to vex scholars throughout the European middle ages. The core issue was one of timing, of getting the astronomical phenomena that undergirded the calendar to correspond to the civil calendar that tracked the days. But the calendar was more than simply a problem, calendars also became important mechanisms for structuring life. Elites often commissioned beautiful calendars of saints’ days and astrological/astronomical phenomena. With the advent of printing, rulers realized that by controlling the printing and distribution of calendars, they could exercise a degree of control and establish shared identities. This class will examine the problems the calendar presented as well as the opportunities.

4. Wednesday, November 3, 2021 – Mechanical Clocks in Pre-modern Europe Mechanical clocks were marvels and wondrous mechanisms, sometimes suspected of operating through magic and sorcery. They were large, at least most early clocks were, and often on towers or in churches. Although few had minute hands, many had elaborate astronomical and astrological dials. Attendants had to reset the time, often once a day, for these early clocks did not keep accurate time. This week we will look at a number of these early mechanical clocks, in particular, the astronomical clocks on towers and in churches.

5. Wednesday, November 10, 2021 - Luxury Sundials in Pre-modern Europe Counterintuitively, the market for luxury sundials exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, well after mechanical clocks had become relatively common (at least among the elites and wealthy). Unlike earlier sundials, these later sundials were as much markers of affluence and prestige as they were time-telling devices. We will look at these later sundials both to recover what they can tell us about time in pre-modern Europe, but also what they suggest about luxury goods and the dependability of mechanical clocks.

6. Wednesday, November 17, 2021 – Clock Time as Disciplining Technology Marking and tracking time not only prompted the development of various technologies, in turn time itself became a sort of technology that could be used to shape life. This class will look at some of the ways time seems to have been deployed as a technology, and the consequences that has had for both lived experience and for our understanding of time.

Suggested Readings

Readings for each week are listed on the course syllabus and available for download from the professor's website. For access, sign in and go to the Online Event Page.

About the Professor

Dr. Darin Hayton is a historian of science whose research focuses on the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, especially the science of the stars (astrology and astronomy) in pre-Modern Europe and the late Byzantine Empire. He is an Associate Professor of the history of science at Haverford College and Chair of the Editorial Board of Lever Press, an innovative Open Access scholarly press. He recently published “The Crown and the Cosmos. Astrology and the Politics of Maximilian I.” He has taught for the Wagner since 2016.

If you have any questions about this online course, please email or

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Organizer Wagner Free Institute of Science

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Founded in 1855 in Philadelphia, the Wagner Free Institute of Science is dedicated to providing free public education in science. Its programs include free courses and lectures, field trips and lessons for children and museum tours for all ages. The evening science courses are the oldest program devoted to free adult education in the United States.  The Institute’s Museum houses more than 100,000 natural history specimens, a collection begun by founder William Wagner in the early 19th century and expanded by the renowned scientist Joseph Leidy in the 1880s. Completed in 1865, the Wagner’s National Historic Landmark building is essentially unchanged since the late 19th century and includes a Victorian exhibition hall filled with fossils, shells, minerals and mounted animal skeletons and skins displayed in original wood and glass cabinets. The Museum is currently open to visitors Tuesdays - Fridays, 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM and on the first Saturday of every month from Noon to 4 PM. The Wagner also offers courses, lectures and events in the evenings, in person and online. Join us!

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