When athletes compete against each other for the glory of an Olympic medal, hundreds of photographers try to capture the one and only moment which makes the games so unique.
Each feat pushes back the limits of the humanly possible, and each is recorded with precision. The horologists thus become heroes. Because they never appear before the fast public, here is their story.
It all began with horses and war. In the seventeenth century, the kings and gen-tlemen of England took up horse breeding with a view to improving the strong but slow native stock. The older horses had served well when knights and steeds wore armor and it took a heavy beast to carry the weight and withstand the shock of battle. But now gunpowder had made armor obsolete; mobility was more conducive to survival. The English began importing nimble Arabian horses from North Africa and the Levant, sometimes paying the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of today's dollars.
Three of these animals achieved immortality as progenitors of the major bloodlines in the stud book: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian, and the Godolphin Arab.
The English of that day were irrepressibly rational-that is, means-ends-directed. Once they began to breed horses to speed, they had to know whether they were getting results. To settle the inevitable brags of one owner to another, they raced their horses - at first informally and as was, then increasingly under standardized conditions, at equal weights, on prepared tracks, in scheduled events with prizes, and often to wagers far exceeding the value of the prize.
This kind of competition called for serious preparation. The horse trainer, as distinguished from the groom, made his appearance, and professional riders took the place of amateur owners in the saddle. Every race was preceded by a regimen of exercise and practice runs. Owners wanted to know in advance how a horse was doing, and the one unambiguous way to find out was to time him. Times were also important for assessing results from one year to another and for comparing the performances of different bloodlines.
Along with gains of convenience came refinement of measure. The early center-seconds watches showed elapsed time to the nearest second; the watch dial used the same lines to mark seconds and minutes. Beginning around 1770, however, some watches began to show fractional seconds - quarter seconds for watches beating 14,400 times an hour (slow train), fifth seconds for those making 18,000 beats (fast train). These smaller units did not require any change in the watch mechanism; the new lines on the dial simply marked its beat (four or five times a second). They do show, however, that races were getting tighter, and, that trainers, owners, and bettors wanted more precise information on performance.
We are all children of the Enlightenment: we count calories, set alarm clocks, watch weather forecasts on TV. So habitual, so inconspicuous, are these daily rituals that we perform them automatically. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who considered man the "measure of all things", we feel at home in an infinitely expansive cosmos. Great thinkers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries passed down to us the notion of civilisation moving in a single – and desirable – direction. Thermometers, weighing scales and microscopes long ago moved us safely past the marshes of approximation. Time, risk and mortality are now told in numbers and quantified, since incremental progress relies on accurate measurement.
Even so, there was plenty of room for human disagreement at these games. Alas, nothing is perfect.