Pur Autre Vie

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Annihilation of Space by Time

Two passages on the innovation of time zones. First, from Nature's Metropolis, by William Cronon (which I cannot recommend highly enough):

The most dramatic proof that this new universe had extended its influence to the outside world came in 1883, when the major railroad companies imposed on North America new, "standard" times to replace the hundreds of "local" times which had previously been used to set clocks throughout the country. Before the invention of standard time, clocks were set according to the rules of astronomy: noon was the moment when the sun stood highest in the midday sky. By this strict astronomical definition every locale had a different noon, depending on the line of longitude it occupied. When clocks read noon in Chicago, it was 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis, 11:38 A.M. in St. Paul, 11:27 A.M. in Omaha, and 12:18 P.M. in Detroit, with every possible variation in between. For companies trying to operate trains between these various points, the different local times were a scheduling nightmare. Railroads around the country set their clocks by no fewer than fifty-three different standards-and thereby created a deadly risk for everyone who rode them. Two trains running on the same tracks at the same moment but with different clocks showing different times could well find themselves unexpectedly occupying the same space, with disastrous consequences.

And so, on November 18, 1883, the railroad companies carved up the continent into four time zones, in each of which all clocks would be set to exactly the same time. At noon, Chicago jewelers moved their clocks back by nine minutes and thirty-three seconds in order to match the local time of the ninetieth meridian. The Chicago Tribune likened the event to Joshua's having made the sun stand still, and announced, "The railroads of this country demonstrated yesterday that the hand of time can be moved backward about as easily as Columbus demonstrated that an egg can be made to stand on its end." Although the U.S. government would not officially acknowledge the change until 1918, everyone else quickly abandoned local sun time and set clocks by railroad time instead. Railroad schedules thus redefined the hours of the day: sunrise over Chicago would henceforth come ten minutes sooner, and the noonday sun would hang a little lower in the sky.

. . . .

The isolation that had constrained the trade and production of frontier areas would disappear in the face of what Karl Marx called "the annihilation of space by time," the tendency of capitalism's technologies and markets to drive "beyond every spatial barrier." Wherever the network of rails extended, frontier became hinterland to the cities where rural products entered the marketplace. Areas with limited experience of capitalist exchange suddenly found themselves much more palpably within an economic and social hierarchy created by the geography of capital.

And from International Money, by Charles Kindleberger (confusingly, not available in a Kindle version):

A few years ago, the brilliant Swiss journalist Herbert Luethy wrote a book on France (in the American edition, France Against Herself), with the title in French A l'heure de son clocher (Each clock on its own time). The reference was to France before its postwar economic upsurge. The Italians have a similar expression, campanilismo, which emphasizes the separateness of individual villages, each regulated by the campanile, or bells of the village church. In primitive economies time stands still or goes its separate ways. In a modern, interdependent economy, by contrast, time not only flies or marches on; it does so in unison.

. . . .

At the micro-temporal level, the optimum time zone is smaller than the world but bigger than the locality. Greenwich Mean Time dates from 1675, but British cities continued to operate independently of one another chronometrically until about 1800. The clocks of Plymouth, in the west of England, for example, ran sixteen minutes later than those of London.

The railroads changed all this. G. M. Young has explained that railroad timetables rendered the English middle-class public conscious of precious time and disposed to carry watches. The twenty-four hour gate clock on the Royal Observatory building in Greenwich was installed in 1852 to measure time for Great Britain. North American railroads found it desirable to adopt not only the British standard gauge of track width, but also time zones based on Greenwich. Greenwich finally came into its own as the international time standard at a conference held in 1884 at Washington. The need for such a world standard arose from the increased speed of steamers equipped with screw propellers, which crossed the Atlantic in days instead of weeks.

Fixed time zones are analogous to stable exchange rates, and both were increasingly needed, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to accommodate the substantial and rising volume of world trade.

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