Credit: Johner Images / Getty Images
*This piece was originally published on January 15th, 2021.
It might be hard to believe, but there was an era when time wasn’t as exact as it is now. When people would come over on “Tuesday” rather than “Tuesday at exactly 2:30 p.m.” Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist and author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, and she tells the curious, winding story of how time came to be so important. Strangely enough, it involves a woman who sold time, using a watch named Arnold.
- Ruth Belville’s family sold time for over a hundred years, from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. How? Well, Ruth had an extremely precise pocket watch (nicknamed “Arnold” after its maker, John Arnold), and she would go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (of “Greenwich Mean Time” fame) to set her pocket watch to the super-accurate clocks there. She would then travel - with Arnold - to her various customers throughout London who needed to know the precise time.
- In the 19th century, time had to be increasingly exact because of the railroads. With their efficient schedules, America’s multitude of time zones just wouldn’t work. Yes, you read that right: we had a multitude of time zones. Indeed, before 1883, some states had over 30 time zones. The four American time zones we know today are, in large part, due to the rise of the railroads.
- Ramirez points out that the creation of exact times also impacted our understanding of time itself, in a thoroughly unexpected way. The Swiss patent office had to look at and approve a lot of new time-keeping technology, which, according to Ramirez, led one young patent officer to think about the nature of time itself. That man’s name? Albert Einstein.
- If you’d like to know more about how Ramirez became a scientist, and why she thinks science evangelism is so important, here’s a previous interview we conducted with her in 2015.
- London’s Science Museum has a great image of “Arnold,” Belville’s pocket watch.
- Want more Einstein? Here’s a special we did a while back to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the theory of relativity.