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”.


15 thoughts on “Hour by Hour

  1. Wow. What a wonderful post. I’ve never thought about time in this aspect before.

    I like the idea of keeping ‘honest’ time…by the sun and the rhythm of the seasons.

    Thanks for a wonderful link for the letter H.


  2. I have relatives in Kansas who live near a time zone line – some choose to flex back and forth when the time changes, and some just keep their clocks the same. That was my father’s generation though, and most of them are now gone…

  3. Wanda, you always give me something to think about! We all rush around so much these days – a few days without any timekeeping sounds very very attractive

  4. your H post is written beautifully … and i still look to my wrist for the time … until i realize that i don’t have a watch on because my cell phone is with me … i do miss certain aspects of the past, and a beautiful time piece is one of the things i miss the most

  5. Wanda – a couple of months ago, I picked up a book at the library of maps of the world’s railroads – just because I have always liked maps and it was rather beautiful. And this book detailed the history of standardized time, just as you have written about here – something that I never realized. So interesting when we know the history of something that we take for granted on a daily basis.

    And I still wear a watch to tell time which obviously tells you something about my age 🙂

  6. I hadn’t realised about the railways ‘inventing’ standard time zones…and I have to say that somedays I feel as though I DO live by the travelling sun, which is a rather nice feeling!
    Alison xx

  7. I moved from the western USA, where I was born and lived nearly 50 years, to the eastern time zone and after more than 15 years still feel that I’m fighting my own body clock. And I do remember those lovely childhood days – especially summer ones, with no school to interrupt the flow of blissful freedom! I am looking forward to a time (ha!) when I can leave my watch on the dresser and live again to the rhythms of nature and my own body.

    • Lee, I can certainly relate to feeling displaced. We moved to Florida from Rhode Island nearly 8 years ago and I have yet to reconcile myself to a warm Thanksgiving and Christmas season. I’m never ready for either one of those holidays because I don’t have the weather cues to help me get into the spirit.

  8. I was just reading about the railroads setting up standard time zones in my son’s US History book, Really interesting reflection on time and our ever changing, moving faster world. I like the technology too, but it is a gift and challenge to be able to slip away to a quiet retreat type place and not worry about time. As our boys grow into manhood, I sure wish time would slow down or even move backwards.

  9. I really like this, and remember fondly the carefree endless-time days of childhood – when I didn’t have a watch! I didn’t know about the link with the railroads – thank-you!

  10. Very interesting piece. Having lived in one area most of my life, it was easy to tell (generally) what time it was by where the sun was etc. But having moved to another time zone in the past couple of years, I’m still trying to get my bearings. Thanks for the history lesson!

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