Trinkets of Frivolous Utility?
By Amy Willis
Horology. Did you know what that was before listening to this episode with author, watchmaker and restorer Rebecca Struthers. I know I didn’t! And now I’m completely fascinated. Host Russ Roberts welcomed Struthers to talk about her new book, Hands of Time, but as usual the conversation spanned much, much more.
I learned that there are not enough restorers to meet demand (the market for repairs repairs is fine), and that watchmakers exemplify the blurry distinction we like to think of between competition and cooperation. And while I’ve seldom paid much mind to watches as more than a fashion accessory, I would now love to visit the basement room in the British museum filled with them. What treasures! (I also loved Struthers’ characterization of museums as like icebergs.)
Now we’d like to hear what you have to say. Join us in the comments, or use the prompts below to start your own conversation offline.
1- Struthers describes for Roberts how John Harrison solved the longitude problem. What was the problem, and why was it so difficult to solve? (Hint: it may have involved cats!)
2- Roberts describes Adam Smith’s pin factory for Struthers and asks her to relate it to the history of watchmaking. Struthers described how Dutch watch forgers revolutionized production, availability, and price.
Why didn’t Smithian style division of labor take off in the Netherlands? What happened in the United States instead? To what extent does this contradict Smith’s account that the workers involved in a production process are the most likely to find opportunities for greater specialization?
How did the Swiss usher in yet another new wave of division of labor by choosing not to fight against American mass production (as did the British)? How did this Swiss revolution change the fashion of watches?
3- How has the history of watches changed the way we think about time? Do you regard these changes as net positive or negative? Explain.
4- Roberts reads another quote from Smith, this time from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, before he and Struthers discuss the famous watch created for Marie Antoinette. What do you think? Are watches “mere trinkets of frivolous utility?” What do you think Adam Smith would have said?
5- How has this episode changed the way you think about watches? Why do you think Struthers chose not to restore the watch that survived the World War II plane crash? How can you relate this to the case of the Elgin marbles as discussed in this earlier episode with Tiffany Jenkins? Should the watch in question have been restored? Why or why not?