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It’s About Time We Mentioned the Books…

It’s About Time We Mentioned the Books…


The British Horological Institute Museum has a large collection of clocks, watches and timekeepers housed at Upton Hall. They can be seen by the public when the museum is open, on Fridays 11am-3pm from now until September 8th.

However, what most visitors to the museum don’t know is that the British Horological Institute is also in the possession of an extensive collection of horological and scientific books.

The BHI’s library is incredibly important, both to the institute and the museum. It provides vital information on the history of timekeeping, as well as scientific guidance on clock and watchmaking. However, the collection is also historically significant in its own right. It contains items that would be of interest not just to horologists and clock enthusiasts, but to those interested in literary and book history too.

Below is a glimpse into some fascinating and surprising finds from the collection.

Treatise on the Astrolabe by Geoffrey Chaucer

1872 edition by the Reverend Walter W. Skeat

Chaucer, world famous as the author of The Canterbury Tales, wrote and published his Treatise on the Astrolabe – the first technical manual to be written in English – during the 1390s. The work details the many functions and parts of an astrolabe, which were elaborate scientific instruments used by astronomers and navigators to measure the positions of celestial objects, determine the time of night, the time of year, the altitude of an object over the horizon and to determine latitude (amongst many other uses). Their history can be traced back 2000 years but they were highly developed in the Islamic world by 800AD. Chaucer addressed the work to ‘Little Lewis’, who may have been his son.

The 14th century manuscript of Treatise on the Astrolabe is held at St John’s College Cambridge.

The edition held by the BHI, though much later, is interesting in that it contains the impressions and notes of its editor, Skeat, who takes it upon himself to relate the work to Chaucer’s other writings, in particular, The Canterbury Tales.

Scholars have since demonstrated how Chaucer’s imagining of time and place in The Canterbury Tales was influenced by the visual image of time as provided by the astrolabe. These ancient scientific instruments played a significant role in the depiction of the passage of time we find in this iconic work of literature.

The History of Wonderful Inventions by John Timbs

First edition 1849 (the BHI’s is a later Victorian edition)

Many of the scientific works in the BHI Museum’s collection are, to say the least, a little daunting to the non-horologist. This work certainly isn’t.

Aimed at non-experts, its decorative cover and pretty engravings throughout signal its broad appeal, particularly for the ‘Young reader’. It contains chapters on an expansive range of scientific inventions in chapters on ‘Lighthouses’, ‘Clocks’, ‘Printing’, ‘The Thermometer’, ‘The Microscope’ and ‘Gunpowder and Gun-Cotton’.

The work believes unapologetically in the role of science to advance civilisation: ‘The glory of the future is only to be realised by maturing the grandeur of the present. It is by going on from the point already attained that a more splendid and perfect future is to be reached.’

The book also provides a brief introduction to the history of timekeeping prior to clocks and watches, from the use of candles by Alfred the Great and sundials by the ancient Greeks, to water clocks.

It is an interesting demonstration of popular science writing in the Victorian era.

Book Collector’s Quarterly Edited by Desmond Flowers and A.J.A Symons

Number 111 June-August 1931

The reason that this curious collection of essays on book collecting is at the BHI is unclear, as it does not appear to relate to horology at all.

It is nonetheless an interesting book, which gives some insight into the very reasons and ways that libraries such as the BHI’s exist, by providing musings on the practice of book collecting as carried out by librarians and private collectors. Its founder, Symons, was an English writer and bibliographer (someone who lists and describes books, paying attention to authorship, typography, edition etc). He had previously founded a ‘First Edition Club’ to publish limited editions of works and organise exhibitions of rare books. In 1924 he published a bibliography of first editions of works by Yeats.

The Book Collector’s Quarterly was intended to promote book collecting and advise collectors on conservation and care.

An essay on ‘The Care of Books’ instructs the reader: ‘Do not leave your books, deserted “on the shelf”. Run your finger along the joints where the boards are attached; the leather will respond and keep alive.’

This advice not to neglect books is perhaps pertinent to us at the BHI, where our interesting and varied collection perhaps does not quite receive the recognition or attention it deserves.



By Emma Raymond, Resilience Syndicate Intern at the British Horological Institute

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