Hour by Hour
There was a time, not so long ago, when time of day was completely local. Before wristwatches became common after World War I, people depended on more natural methods to tell time—sunrise and sunset, the length and depth of shadows over the course of the day, the location of the sun or the moon in the sky, the crow of a rooster to herald a new day, and even stomach rumblings to indicate time for a meal. Small town time was often governed by a public timepiece—a tower clock or perhaps a fancy piece in a jeweler’s window. But, in general, time was much less absolute than it is now.
When and why the change? “Standard” time, it turns out, is an invention of the railroads, the first relatively fast mode of travel. Until then, travel was by foot, on horseback, or in a carriage. Each of these modes of travel was relatively slow but, more importantly, they were mostly independent of anything else around them, so the time at the start of a journey was of little consequence to the time at the destination. However, as railroads spread across the U.S. in the 1850s, it became increasingly important that people in towns where trains stopped knew when the train would be there. In 1883, the heads of the major railroads adopted a system of five standard time zones for the U.S. and Canada. In November 1883, the U.S. Naval Observatory, the nation’s timekeeper, changed its telegraphic signals to correspond to the railroad system and the new system was adopted by most states within a year of its implementation.
Fast forwarding by 130 or so years, we find that time in our era has been compressed. Modern 24/7 communication technologies mean that we can be, and often are, witnesses to events as they occur around the globe. Wristwatches were rare in the early 20th century and are now rare again as people increasingly depend on cell phones and other mobile devices to know the time. These days most of us are less aware of our natural environment and its influences on our lives than we are about current events half the world away.
Though I enjoy and appreciate modern conveniences, I must say I find a certain appeal to simpler times when the sun’s travel might have ruled my days.Posted for Jenny Matlock’s Alpabe-Thursday study of the letter “H”.