This month we are looking at the intersection between art, history and science. Out interviewee, David Rooney, is a writer and curator with a background in science. He joined the Science Museum in London as a trainee in 1995, fresh from a science degree that made him realise he was more interested in telling stories than practising science itself.

His curatorial break came in 1997 when he secured a post working on the museum’s landmark Making the Modern World gallery, which opened in 2000. He later moved to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as curator of timekeeping, before returning to the Science Museum as curator of transport. He was also the lead curator of the critically acclaimed Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid, which opened in 2016.

David’s first book, Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady (2008), was a biography of a remarkable London family who sold the time by carrying a pocket chronometer, corrected weekly at the Greenwich observatory, around to their subscribers. This story brings together that which David loves most the stories behind the science and history he studied.

His most recent book, About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks (2021), is ambitious, wide-ranging, and provocative, asking why civilizations have made clocks and why we should understand them better. When he is not writing, reading, curating, or exploring, David helps run three horological charities, including the Clockmakers’ Museum, the oldest clock and watch museum in the world.

We invited David to talk about his work and the interesting intersections between storytelling, art and science that he has found throughout his long career.

Your most recent book About Time: A History of Civilization In Twelve Clocks is the culmination of 15 years’ worth of research. How do you go about distilling this into just one book?

It was a wonderful challenge, and one of the hardest things I’ve done! For years, I’d been telling stories about clocks and time that were centred in the West, and from the past couple of centuries. But the more I looked, the more I started to realise that I wanted to zoom right out and look at a much longer period and wider geographical scope.

By doing so, I was able to discern a set of bigger, civilization-level themes in which clocks have always played a central role – order, faith, morality, empires, money, resistance, and so on. These themes formed the structure of About Time.

In chronology, the book covers over 2,500 years of history. Geographically, it explores the Roman, Mongol, Timurid, Mughal, and Ottoman empires as well as the maritime empires of Europe, and looks at clocks in a range of places from China, Japan and Korea to Central Europe, Africa, South Asia, Australia, America, the Middle East and outer space…

You have a lot of experience as a curator. Do you think this spills over into your work as a writer?

It absolutely does—all the time. In About Time, once I had the book’s thematic structure clear in my mind, I looked for a clock – an accurate clock from history – that embodied each of the twelve main stories I wanted to tell. Some were real treasures or world firsts, but others were modest or even apparently mundane. This helped me make the point that every clock that has ever been produced has great power, in its own way.

It’s been the same with everything I do. I spent six years studying the political history of traffic, and how the so-called ‘traffic problem’ can never be solved. There, too, I treated the traffic landscape – vehicles, people, flyovers, guardrails, traffic lights, junctions, CCTV cameras and so on – as a set of artefacts to be ‘curated’. Of course, telling stories through objects, as well as the stories of objects, is what curators spend their lives doing.

In much of your work, there is a balance between technology and wider society. Have you always been interested in this crossover?

Yes, indeed. Technologies – by which I mean anything made by humans for particular purposes – cannot be separated from the societies in which they are made, or from the people who made, used, maintained and otherwise engaged with them. Societies make technologies and technologies help shape societies.

That symbiotic idea, which I learned early in my career from wonderful scholars and curators I was privileged to study with, has underpinned my thinking ever since. It’s what led me to ask why as much as how when studying the history of technology. What do these things mean? For what purposes were they made? How did people react to them and seek to accommodate their presence in their worlds – or try to resist?

Often, the real answers aren’t the obvious ones, which is what makes historical study so rewarding.

You’ve written about time, cities, and engineering. If you were to write about another area, what would it be?

I would have to simply say, watch this space! What fascinates me is what Douglas Adams once described beautifully as ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.’ People, things, and ideas are all connected through space and time, and I am attracted to any story that sheds light on some of those connections, so we understand the world just a little bit better.

This means that my interests are gloriously wide, so I’ve always got plenty of ideas bubbling up! Let’s see which one comes to the boil first. Suffice to say I’m having a great time researching in new areas now that About Time is safely out in the world.

What are your three favourite history books and why?

I first read Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits over twenty years ago when I was studying the history of science and technology. Its lessons stuck with me. Lisa wove a fascinating tapestry of connections in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century worlds which today we describe as science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics, and she gave apparently abstract ideas about real human flesh and blood. I loved it. Her own interests and specialisms were extremely wide and full of interconnection, enabling her to combine breadth and depth – really first class. Lisa is very much missed in the history world.

About the same time as I was reading Lisa Jardine’s work, I also got a copy of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. It changed in quite a fundamental way how I see the physical world around us, and the ways we co-exist, over long periods of time, with the technologies and structures that we and our predecessors have built. It’s incredibly subtle and quite brilliant. In fact, I recommend everything that Stewart has written. The Clock of the Long Now and Whole Earth Discipline are two other books by him that look at history – events happening over time ­– in powerful and innovative ways.

Much more recently, I’ve just read Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award 2021. I can easily see why. It’s a thrilling and gripping adventure story – about early mountaineering and the quest to conquer Everest – that also has real emotional heft. Through its structure and Ed’s careful narration a much wider and deeper story is told than merely an attempt to climb the mountain, fascinating though that aspect of it is. I really couldn’t put it down – it is a superb piece of narrative non-fiction that speaks softly but packs a powerful punch.

We want to thank David once again for being our expert this month, you can find out more about him and his work on his website or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.