Politics & Prose January 2003

The Track to Modernity

The Track to Modernity

In a century of riotous change, the railroad's standardization of time stood out as a challenge to both nature and democracy

"The American boy of 1854 stood closer to the year 1 than to the year 1900."
—Henry Adams

For the last year I have been trying to elongate Adams's apothegm into a book. Change is my subject. "The historian, by the very nature of his task, must be concerned with change" Alfred D. Chandler Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning business historian, has written. "What made for change? Why did it come when it did, and in the way it did?" Business made for both the most palpable and the deepest-running changes in post-Civil War America, or so I will argue. It was the age of incorporation. The corporation, in Pauline Maier's words, was "the most significant form of collectivism to emerge from the [American] Revolution." Men turned to it when their dreams outstripped their means, pooling their resources in corporations to achieve collectively what they could not achieve individually. The cardinal achievement of the corporation in the nineteenth century was the conquest of American space. In 1841 to ship textiles from Concord, New Hampshire, to Boston via flat boat on the Merrimack River and the Middlesex Canal took four days. In 1842, with the extension to Concord of the Boston and Lowell railroad, it took four hours. Railroads, to use a phrase that came into vogue in the 1830s, "annihilated space." As I discovered in my researches, they did something nearly as dramatic to time. In Keeping Watch: A History of Time in America Michael O'Malley tells this story in delicious detail, and using his book and others, augmented by contemporary newspaper accounts in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, I retell it here.

On November 18, 1883, at noon, U.S. railroad corporations unified American time. Nineteenth century America was a temporal wilderness. In the 1850s Americans set their watches in as many as a hundred local times. Wisconsin alone had thirty-eight, Illinois twenty-seven, Indiana twenty-three. When it was noon in Chicago it was 11:27 in Omaha, 11:50 in St. Louis, 12:09 in Louisville, and 12:31 in Pittsburgh. Nine A.M. arrived thirty seconds earlier in Oakland than it did across the bay in San Francisco. In Kansas City jewelers competed in times, posting their nominees for noon, which varied by as much as twenty minutes. Punctuality was negotiable in Kansas City. An 1883 railway gazetteer included time conversion tables for more than 8000 stations. Fingers plowed the ink off dark columns of type, plotting a route across the temporal Babel. To depart a station under Time A for a station under Time B hoping to connect with another railroad operating under Time C required faith in the providence of algebra. Yet, perhaps because few traveled far, most Americans found this time-quilt tolerable, and many cherished it. They took nature's word for time, and nature said it was noon when the sun was directly overhead, at times that differed with locations. Town clocks, to be sure, were set not by sun dials but by almanacs that averaged the sun's variations over months and years. A scattering of localities rented astronomically precise time from observatories, who wired them through Western Union. These innovations only wedded time the more exactly to place. "[I]t would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time," a U.S. Senate report concluded in 1882, "as it would be to introduce among them novel systems of weights [and] measures...." The Senate did not reckon with a self-sovereign power that, having "annihilated space," sought dominion over time in the name of safety and convenience. The sun told time from Genesis to 12:00 on November 18, 1883, when the railroads imposed standard time as if "ideas" and "habits" held forever were debris on the track to modernity. "The sun is no longer to boss the job," the Indianapolis Centennial lamented. "People—55 million of them—must eat, sleep, and work as well as travel by railroad time.... The sun will be requested to rise and set by railroad time. The planets must, in the future, make their circuits by such timetables as railroad magnates arrange." The railroad magnates rode the mystique of progress. With the founding of the Greenwich observatory in 1848, a world-wide movement to standardize time in zones of longitude gained momentum among scientists and other apostles of the future. That Greenwich promoted itself as the "prime meridian" consternated the French, who wanted Paris to hold that title. American time chauvinists likewise objected to "John Bull's time." The railroads themselves only slowly came round to the idea. Rate wars got in the way. But as competition yielded to consolidation, resistance weakened.

Standard time's advantages were made vivid to railroad managers at an 1883 Railway Time Convention when William Allen, the editor of the Traveler's Official Guide to railways, put two maps on display. One depicted the prevailing fifty different times in a fling of colors. The other showed four bands of color, north to south, 15 degrees of longitude apart. Here, Allen said of the old map, depicted in the clashing hues of competition, is "the barbarism of the past." The new map, a consolidated rainbow, represented "the enlightenment we hope for in the future." No more mind-taxing schedules; no more head-on collisions of trains operating in clashing times; no more time chaos. The delegates left persuaded. They made scant effort to persuade the country, however, announcing they were altering the pulse of the universe mere weeks ahead of the event. On November 17 city jewelers, The New York Times reported, "were busy answering questions from the curious, who seemed to think that the change in time would ... create a sensation ... some sort of disaster, the nature of which could not be exactly ascertained." When Britain adopted the reformed Gregorian calendar in 1752 a mob gathered outside Parliament demanding, "Give us back our eleven days!" By contrast, standard time was imposed on the United States without immediate protest. At Chicago's West Side Union Depot on November 18 the master clock was stopped at 12:00 waiting for the railroad-decreed noon, which arrived, via telegraph, nine minutes and thirty-two seconds later. "Have you the new time?" strangers asked each other on the city's streets.

Railroads had long since accelerated the tempo of life. But the speed-up captured by cliches like "on time" and "on the tick" and "on the clocker" had occurred gradually, and under the cover of celebration. Standard time focused a delayed ambivalence. "Damn Vanderbilt's time! We want God's time," one old party fleered at a railroad time consultant. Many non-codgers felt the same way. Told that his train left at eight o'clock "standard" time, a Pennsylvania Irishman replied, "Well that settles it." Settles what? asked the conductor. "Why, the whole of it. They've got the time now. They'll be gittin' the wind next," he said, conflating standard time with Standard Oil but capturing the commanding power they had in common. Pittsburgh banned standard time until 1887. Augusta and Savannah held out until 1888. In Ohio, city after city balked. When the Bellaire, Ohio, school board voted to adopt standard time, the city council had the board arrested. The mayor of Bangor, Maine, vetoed a time-altering resolution passed by the city council. Any change "that disarms the customs of people handed down from time immemorial," he argued, "should at least have the sanction of the State legislature." In Washington the attorney general ordered federal employees to conduct business on un-reconstructed time. The railroads could not force government into adopting their standard. That would take an act of Congress, which came only in 1918. Standardizing time challenged both nature and democracy. "The system adopted by you," William Allen boasted to the railroad managers at their next meeting, "now governs the daily and hourly actions of at least fifty million people." His verb was revealing. Who elected the railroads to govern? "Today the 75th meridian is standard because the railroad kings have ordered it," one congressman declared. "Tomorrow the railroads may make it the 76th, or the 80th." Let the people decide, he said. Put time to a vote. Private enterprise had done more than change a universal. Standard time, The New York Herald observed, "goes beyond the public pursuits of men and enters into their private lives as part of themselves." In Keeping Watch Michael O'Malley explains, "Once individuals experienced time as a relationship between God and nature. Henceforth, under the railroad standards, men and women would measure themselves in relation to a publicly defined time based on synchronized clocks." They already measured space in time, railroads having got them used to collapsing miles into minutes. "[T]he real distance between New York and Philadelphia," a writer in Niles Weekly Register noted in 1848, when the miracle was still wet, "...is just the same as it was a hundred years ago,—but the relative distance is changed from seven days to seven hours." This feat invited giddy generalization. Railroads, the writer continued, had "changed the very nature of 'circumstances and time.'" A modern historian is hardly less sober on the social effects of the railroad's twin conquests: "No American ... was immune to these changes. Even if he were outside the market economy, his habits of mind, the way he looked at his world, his very character, changed radically." Julius Caesar regularized the calendar in 46 BC. Pope Gregory XIII reformed it in 1582. King George subtracted eleven days from the British calendar in the eighteenth century. The railroad corporation collapsed space and remapped time in the nineteenth century—"signal proof," to a Nebraska editor, that the railroads "are the most potent factors of our progressive civilization." He marveled that "In a quarter of a century, they have made the people of the country homogenous, breaking through the ... provincialisms which marked separate and unmingling sections." The railroads, he was proposing, had knit a broken Union together—a Union in their time and on their terms. From November 18, 1883, the phrase "corporate America" meant everything it said.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In