A Brief History of (Modern) Time

Our global system of timekeeping didn’t just emerge—it had to be imposed.

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

In January 1906, several thousand cotton-mill workers rioted on the outskirts of Bombay. Refusing to work at their looms, they pelted factories with rocks, their revolt soon spreading to the heart of the city, where more than 15,000 citizens signed petitions and marched angrily in the streets. They were protesting the proposed abolition of local time in favor of Indian Standard Time, to be set five-and-a-half hours ahead of Greenwich. To early 20th-century Indians, this looked like yet another attempt to crush local tradition and cement Britannia’s rule. It wasn’t until 1950, three years after Indian independence, that a single time zone was adopted nationwide. Journalists called this dispute the “Battle of the Clocks.” It lasted nearly half a century.

Today, we take our global system of timekeeping largely for granted: 24 time zones rippling serenely outward from Greenwich; a year of 12 months, divided into 52 weeks, recognized from San Francisco to Shanghai; the much-loathed biannual leap of daylight saving time. These are the conventions that let us talk and travel and trade across the world without batting an eye. Yet in her imaginative and thought-provoking new book The Global Transformation of Time, 1870-1950, Vanessa Ogle reminds us that standardization and simultaneity had to be invented.

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.

Technology also forced greater precision of calculation and measurement. Many Westerners felt that globalization required more accurate and predictable ways of measuring time. As a Frankfurt literary society put it in 1864: “The more spatial separation is overcome … the more urgent and important is the need for a general, matching calculation of time.”

Timekeeping was a messy and bewildering business in most parts of the 19th-century world. American railways recognized 75 different local times in 1875; three of those were in Chicago alone. In Germany, travellers had to clarify whether departures were according to Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Ludwigshafen, or Frankfurt time. By the end of the century, this maddening variety of competing local times was making it difficult to transport everything from spices to armies. Clashing calendars made the headaches even worse. Until revolutionaries jettisoned the Julian calendar in 1918, Russia was 13 days behind western Europe. Local populations in Britain’s Natal colony, at the southern tip of the African continent, divided the year into 13 lunar cycles. Islamic societies counted years from 622 C.E., when the prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina.

The first priority for time reformers was to replace the world’s impossible patchwork of local times with a universal system of territorial mean times. This was the dream articulated by Scottish-Canadian engineer Sandford Fleming and officially adopted by diplomats at the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C.: a world divided into 24 zones, each with a single mean time determined by astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Calendar reform was no less critical. Simply extending the Gregorian calendar worldwide was one option. Another, preferred by eccentric figures like Kodak founder George Eastman and Elisabeth Achelis, an American activist known in Europe as “The Calendar Lady,” was to start from scratch with a new world calendar suitable for a scientific modern age. Many subscribed to a design first articulated by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte: a perfectly rationalized calendar year of 13 equal months with 28 days each. (Major firms like Sears and Kodak had been doing their internal accounting this way for years, but it proved a hard sell.)

Overall, time reformers were remarkably successful at bending the world to their will. But it was a hard-won achievement. Around the globe, local populations resented European meddling with their everyday lives and traditional rhythms. The citizens of Bombay openly revolted. In late Ottoman Beirut, colorful and cosmopolitan, locals cheerfully acknowledged new ways of measuring time without relinquishing the old. The chimes of new public clocks overlapped with church bells and muezzin calls. Transitgoers consulted bus schedules with both European and Turkish times. A paradoxical enterprise with unintended consequences, time reform often caused more chronological chaos than it resolved.

Many Europeans needed convincing, too. France adopted a nationwide mean time in 1891 but refused to adopt the Greenwich meridian; politicians preferred to calculate the hours in Paris rather than suffer the national indignity of setting French time with an English observatory. Daylight saving time, another pet project for time reformers, struck many as a plot to steal extra hours from workers. Others thought it was an unforgivable attempt to play God. Still others worried about an encroaching state. One grumpy British reader wrote to The Spectator in 1907 that time reform “proposes to put us to bed and get us up by Act of Parliament. Personally, I like to choose my own time for these operations.” Challenged and ignored on every continent well into the 20th century, modern timekeeping did not simply emerge; it had to be imposed.

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An assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Ogle frames time reform chiefly as a story about globalization. Built impressively on archival research conducted in eight countries and multiple languages, her book reveals that worldwide integration has always been uneven and contested. She reminds us that transnational networks and flows are never neutral and that globalization is an ideological process. Like Sven Beckert’s sensational Empire of Cotton, Ogle’s formidable work contributes to a new history of political economy which takes seriously the ideas, values, and acts of violence behind the emergence of global capitalism.

There is, however, more than one astonishing tale to be coaxed from the overlooked history of clocks and calendars. Time reform also offers a startling, deeply relevant explanation of how technological change happens. Thrumming softly beneath Ogle’s account, after all, are the new tools of communication and transportation which brought the problem of global timekeeping into such stark relief in the first place: railways, steamships, the telegraph.

What we learn from Ogle’s genealogy of time zones is that technology changes the world not by its own Promethean logic but rather according to ours. Telegraphs and steamships and railways generated the future they did only because they were harnessed to a particular political vision: a liberal world order under European auspices. High-minded concepts like uniformity, efficiency, and progress were as ideological as they were scientific. Taking Western superiority for granted, they reflected European convictions about human reason and the remaking of the world.

Time reform was modernity defined in Western terms, developed to suit the interests and assumptions of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. Synchronization made it easier for European elites to project their influence and sell their goods. But losses mounted among the poor and the powerless. In Natal, for instance, indigenous populations lost the right to mark time for themselves after missionaries deemed Zulu calendars wasteful and backwards. Around the world, local traditions and rhythms were erased in the name of progress. Opponents of time reform were astute enough to recognize that the future they were being straitjacketed into was neither necessary nor equal nor democratic. It was designed to benefit some more than others.

Time reform reached its zenith a century ago, but our own vocabulary of technological change is just as unassailable, just as blindly progressive. From Google to GrubHub, today’s digital innovations offer ease and improvement, less wasted time and more information, greater and more meaningful connection with the world around us. This language is soaring and optimistic, but it also makes certain political assumptions about who we are and how we should live together.

Consider the “sharing economy" best exemplified by Airbnb and Uber. Beneath a seductive discourse of empowerment and connectivity lies a vision we might very well wish to contest: the deepening marketization of our lives and relationships, accompanied by spiraling inequality. We ought to think more rigorously about who stands to gain from the smooth, efficient future we’re being offered—and what we might lose.

It remains to be seen precisely how smartphone apps and virtual-reality headsets and Big Data will change the way we live. What’s clear is that they can do so for the better as well as for the worse. The global history of time reform reminds us that technology makes no promises about the shape of our shared future: whether that future will be more or less equal, more or less just, more or less democratic. These are human choices. It’s not technology itself but what we ask it to do for us that makes all the difference.