Changing Times

Changing Times

Getting clocks to keep the same time proved to be a tremendous hurdle to progress in early 20th-century England.

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“Clock Synchrony, Time Distribution and Electrical Timekeeping in Britain, 1880–1925” by Hannah Gay, in Past & PresentPast & Present (Nov. 2003), Oxford Univ. Press, Great Clarendon St., Oxford, England OX2 6DP.

Throughout history, humans have displayed a “need for a unified time system and for people to coordinate their activities in line with it.” But despite advances in timekeeping from natural rhythms, such as those of the sun or tides, to the virtual precision of cesium atomic clocks, synchronizing societal clocks has proved a vexing problem. As late as 1908, almost three decades after Greenwich Mean Time had been established as the standard, a of London complained that no two public timepieces kept the same time. “A lying timekeeper,” as the time-sensitive writer put it, “is an abomination and should not be tolerated.”

The evolution of time synchronization, according to Gay, a historian at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University and at Imperial College, London, depended not just on better timekeeping devices but on sweeping changes in societal attitudes. While coordinating activities mattered to some organizations—the military and monasteries are familiar examples—most people seemed content for centuries to live and work by more casual rhythms. Such practices underwent dramatic changes beginning in the 19th century, as industrializing nations such as Great Britain began measuring days by “manufacturers’ time,” aided by the development of better timekeeping devices.

But what good was a better clock if it didn’t show the correct time? Gay reports that “good timekeeping did not exist outside astronomical ob­servatories, and the workshops of a few clockmakers, until very late in the 19th century.” The situation even yielded a tidy income for John Henry Belville, who acquired the accurate time from the Royal Observatory on a chronometer and then “sold the time.” By 1870, Britain’s General Post Office had been given the monopoly for transmitting the Greenwich time signal to those willing to pay for it, up to £42 a year. A 1908 Times editorial warned that areas with inaccurate timekeeping would be “regarded as extremely antiquated and unprogressive.”

Other changes were afoot, however. Rail traffic’s increasing complexity—and the recognition that “local time” played havoc with train schedules—led to an emphasis on standardization. Telegraph signals were used to transmit more accurate time, a practice that led in the 1850s to the development of synchronous clocks, which depended on electrical impulses, not internal winding mechanisms. The Prime Meridian Conference of 1884 established time zones and a concept of “world time.” Improved timekeeping fostered new ideas, such as the business management theory growing out of the time and motion studies of Frederick W. Taylor in the 1890s. It’s no accident, Gay suggests, that Albert Einstein developed his ideas at precisely the moment when modern synchronization took hold. The modern sense of time creates a feeling of anxiety, of always being rushed, but at its advent it also created new (and more relativistic) ways of seeing the world and an enormous feeling of optimism about humankind’s ability to comprehend and control the flow of events.

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