As the 19th century dissolved into the 20th, the nations of the North Atlantic struggled to impose their ways of marking time on the rest of the globe. It was an ambitious project, championed and resisted and repurposed by an extraordinary cast of characters. Lined up against French scientists, British colonial officials, German war heroes, American businessmen, and Arab reformers were English farmers, mill workers in Bombay, and Muslim scholars across the Middle East. The history of time reform illuminates the uneven nature of globalization, but it also offers us a way to think more deeply about technological change at a moment when we're nearly overwhelmed by it.
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Ever since human beings have existed, we’ve measured time by observing the natural world: the flux of seasons, the dance of heavenly bodies across the sky. More than 30,000 years ago, men and women in what’s now central Europe tracked the moon and stars by carving notches into mammoth tusks. From Stonehenge to the ancient Chinese observatory at Shanxi, many Neolithic structures were originally built to mark the midwinter solstice and celebrate the start of a new year. Some 4,000 years ago, it was the summer flooding of the Nile that signaled to ancient Egyptians that another year had passed. Shifting our gaze over centuries from celestial spheres to the smallest slivers of matter, we have become timekeepers of extraordinary precision. Today’s atomic clocks, which operate by measuring the vibrations of strontium atoms as their electrons vault between energy levels, are so accurate that they won’t lose a single second over the next 15 billion years.
Yet time isn’t as natural or as objective as it seems. Indeed, our sense of time has everything to do with how we relate to one another and understand our place in the universe. Judeo-Christian societies learned to perceive historical time as linear and unidirectional because of a particular story they told themselves about the fate of humankind. The Inca and the Mayans drew different cosmologies from different tales, cyclical and continuous. Time, in other words, has always been a product of the human imagination—and a source of tremendous political power. Julius Caesar knew this when he reshuffled the Roman calendar in 46 B.C.E. to insulate it from the priesthood. Joseph Stalin thought the weekend was a bourgeois luxury; he abolished it in 1929 in a bid to transform ordinary Russians into good Communists.
Our modern timekeeping regime was born at the end of the 19th century. The fin-de-siècle was a global age like our own, linked across borders and continents and oceans. It was also a moment of great technological progress. Railways, steamships, subways, telephones, and radio thundered into existence all at once, collapsing distance and compressing time in ways that dazzled and disoriented.