It’s About Time

By | May 20, 2016

About 10 years ago, the battery in my wristwatch died. It was one of those watches that didn’t have a user-replaceable battery; it needed to be taken to a jeweler’s, and—given my penchant for both cheapness and laziness—I never quite got around to it. But at the time, I was routinely carrying a mobile phone with me, which told the time, and this seemed to suffice. A year later, the iPhone was introduced and now—nine years on—everyone is constantly staring at their phones. Oddly, I now find myself in the market for a wristwatch.

The obsession with checking “mobile devices” goes back centuries at least, whilst some (OK, maybe just me) can’t help but think of the smartphone as a kind of Pandora’s Box—especially when I use it to play music through the Pandora app.

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Acting on instructions from Zeus, Hephaestus and Athena introduced what I guess would be called Woman 1.0, aka Pandora, and during her creation was given a set of unique gifts, not all of them good. Her name, Pandora or Πανδώρα, comes from πᾶν, “pan” or “all,” and δῶρον, “dōron” or “gift.” Ergo, Pandora means “all-giving” or “all-gifted.” Whence the name of Pandora Music. According to the company:

The name Pandora means “all gifted” in Greek. In ancient Greek mythology, Pandora received many gifts from the gods, including the gift of music, from Apollo.

One of the more dubious gifts Pandora was given is perhaps the one she is most known for: “Pandora’s Box,” although in the original Greek myth, it was not a box, but a jar. Opening it, she unwittingly unleashed all the evils of humanity. That’ll happen.

The Pandora myth first appeared in the writings of Hesiod, specifically in Theogeny and at greater length in Works and Days (both written circa 700 B.C.). Hesiod wrote that Pandora opened a jar (pithos), releasing plagues, diseases, and all the other—albeit unnamed—evils of humanity.

(Unlike Pandora, Spotify was not named for a character from Greek myth, although its tendency to inevitably play Eminem at the gym is worse than unleashing the evils of humanity.)

Fast forward to the 16th century, where Dutch humanist and theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (that’s the city in the Netherlands, not the suburb of Schenectady, N.Y.) was translating Hesiod’s Pandora story into Latin. However, he confused the word pithos (“storage jar”) with pyxis (“box”). Thus, “Pandora’s box” caught on in a way that “Pandora’s storage jar” probably wouldn’t have (although Monty Python’s “Storage Jars” lives on, and deservedly so).

Erasmus is perhaps most famous for his satirical treatise In Praise of Folly, but he also had an eye for religious reform. Living during the burgeoning Reformation, he came out against some of the abuses of the Catholic Church, but he kept his distance from Martin Luther and strove to stay on the Pope’s good side (no fool he). He also published one of the first Greek editions of the New Testament. (The bulk of the original New Testament was written in a version of Greek, and was later translated into Latin, the official language of the Church.)

A Greek version of the New Testament was first printed in 1514 by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (it was part of a polyglot edition of the Bible), but it wasn’t officially published until 1522, as Cisneros was waiting for the Pope to approve the Old Testament. (Printers waiting for clients to approve pages. Some things never change.) While Cisneros was waiting on Pope Leo, it gave Erasmus the opportunity to publish his own New Testament first, featuring a brand spankin’ new Latin translation produced by himself. It also featured the original Greek text, which he included so that readers could compare and contrast his translation with the original, although we use the word “original” advisedly. He was a little less than honest in places; in some cases, he translated his own Latin back into Greek. (Part of the problem was that he didn’t have access to a complete Greek manuscript.) He would spend years making corrections. Anyway, when it was published in 1516—or, as he phrased it, “rushed into print rather than edited” (ha! Wait until the Internet) he dedicated it to Pope Leo X (again, no fool he).

Erasmus’ new New Testament was a bit of a blockbuster, and editions of it were used as the primary source for translations into other languages, most notably Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible.

Erasmus’ work also inspired an English scholar named William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) one of the first to attempt an English version of the Bible—and the first to have at least part of the Bible printed in English. Tyndale drew from original Hebrew and Greek texts for his own translation, but only got through the entire New Translation and half the Old Testament. At the time, you didn’t just translate the Bible willy-nilly into whatever language you liked. This was frowned upon by the Catholic Church, and one thing you did not want to be was frowned upon by the Church. Tyndale tried to get permission from the Bishop of London, but his project was deemed “heretical.” He fled to continental Europe and published some partial editions, but his translations were banned and burned in England. Tyndale was caught in Antwerp in 1535, convicted of heresy, and “strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned in the ritualistic fashion then in vogue” (Farris, 2007).

At this time, the hunt was on for any kind of heretical writings, especially unauthorized Bible translations. While Tyndale’s Bible pages were on press in Cologne, Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities by Johann Cochlaeus, an opponent of Luther’s. A prolific writer and “controversialist,” Cochlaeus had the distinction—if you want to call it that—of being reviled by both the Catholic Church and the Reformers at the same time, which takes talent.

For our purposes, though, we will confine our conversation to one passage from Cochlaeus’ 1511–1512 book Cosmographia Pomponii Melae:

Peter Hele, still a young man, fashions works which even the most learned mathematicians admire. He shapes many-wheeled clocks out of small bits of iron, which run and chime the hours without weights for forty hours, whether carried at the breast or in a handbag (Dohrn-van Rossum, 1996).

“Peter Hele” is Peter Henlein (1485–1542), a Nuremberg locksmith and clockmaker, and inventor of the first watch. From the get go, the term “watch” was used to refer to a timepiece—unlike a clock—that could be moved relatively easily, or even worn. (You could probably wear a pendulum clock, but I’ll save that for Lady Gaga.) The earliest watches were more than three inches in diameter and their general size and shape gave them the nickname “Nuremberg eggs.” They were accurate to within 15 minutes, were worn dangling outside the clothes like pendants, and they were more for status or fashion than for their usefulness as timepieces (funny how some things never change).

A century later, fashions changed, as they inevitably do, and it was thanks to technology: watches got smaller and could fit inside pockets—hence, pocketwatches. (And it wasn’t just the watches, but the pocket itself had to be invented! This happened in the 17th century when the waistcoat was invented.)

So this brings us to May 13, 1665, where British man of letters Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary:

To the ‘Change [Royal Exchange] after office, and received my watch from the watchmaker, and a very fine [one] it is, given me by Briggs, the Scrivener. Home to dinner, and then I abroad to the Atturney Generall, about advice upon the Act for Land Carriage, which he desired not to give me before I had received the King’s and Council’s order therein; going home bespoke the King’s works, will cost me 50s., I believe. So home and late at my office. But, Lord! to see how much of my old folly and childishnesse hangs upon me still that I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o’clock it is one hundred times; and am apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one… (Pepys, 1665; emphasis added).

Yes, the venerable 17th-century diarist was obsessed with his new pocketwatch and kept obsessively pulling it out and checking the time. Imagine what he’d do with a smartphone.

If you enjoy these historical digressions, 21 of my Digital Nirvana posts from last year have been collected into a new book called Printing Links, available in paperback from Amazon.



“Clocks And Watches—Encyclopedia Of Antiques,” Antiques Digest, Old and Sold,

Andrew Atherston, Reformation: A World in Turmoil, Oxford: Lion Books, 2011, p. 111.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott, “Samuel Pepys Checks His Smartphone…er, Watch, 1665,” Two Nerdy History Girls, March 24, 2016,

Rodney Carlisle, Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity—from the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven, Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004, p. 143.

Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 122.

Michael Farris, From Tyndale to Madison: How the Death of an English Martyr Led to the American Bill of Rights, B&H Publishing Group, 2007, p. 37.

Cecilia A. Hatt, ed., English Works of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester: Sermons and Other 1520 to 1535, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 57.

Samuel Pepys, “Saturday 13 May 1665,” The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1665,

“Desiderius Erasmus,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 15, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,

“Johann Cochlaeus,” Wikipedia, last modified on February 2, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,

“Pandora,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 9, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,

“Peter Henlein,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 10, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,

“Tyndale Bible,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 4, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,

“William Tyndale,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 6, 2016, retrieved May 17, 2016,


Share this post