February 12, 2016

A clock beneath a skyscraper.

Looking up at the time. Credit: Laurence Edmondson / Flickr Creative Commons

Your alarm clock wakes you up. You have to get to the office by 9. This weekend, you’ll take the 7:30 flight to Chicago.

Your life revolves around time, but you probably don’t ponder it all that much. And why would you? It seems like a force of nature. But it wasn’t always that way.

“If we look at the late 19th century, we see something happening which very much would suggest that... in fact, people had to come to create the concept of time as we know it now.”

Yes, time – or our modern conception of it – was invented. And it was invented pretty recently.

That’s according to Vanessa Ogle, an Assistant Professor of History at UPenn and author of The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950. She says that before the late 19th century, time wasn’t that big a deal. Accurate time was important for sailors and some businesspeople, but, for most of our ancestors (who made their living by working the land), a general sense of the day and the seasons was enough to get by.

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution, and new technologies like the railroad and telegraph, which made the world increasingly connected.

Without accurate, globalized time, though, a burgeoning era of commerce and travel could have faced some serious roadblocks.

Ogle notes that “roughly until the 1880s in the United States, you had up to 75 different railway times in use… In Chicago there were three times being used, in Kansas City there were five, and in St. Louis there were six.”

If you were a statesman or businessperson, this was an untenable situation. So, with conferences and diplomatic meetings, a group of scientists and thinkers introduced the concept of time zones and uniform time.

The world took a while to come around to the concept, (there were even riots in Bombay). And in Ogle’s view it wasn’t until the rise of air travel post-WWII when globalized time finally became fully accepted. But eventually, standardized time became such an important part of everyone’s lives that our society is almost unimaginable without it.

Not that it doesn’t have some drawbacks.

“[The invention of time] meant, for instance, [workers] would have to get up while it was still dark and commute to work in the darkness. And that, even in the late 19th century, was something that really bothered a lot of people.”

Vanessa Ogle, Global Transformation of Time, Sci and Tech

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