Throughout the 19th century, moving all the folk worldwide into one agreed-upon definition of time took some doing.
"What scientists had in mind in devising a scheme for worldwide time zones was, after all, an incredibly ambitious project," wrote Vanessa Ogle in “The Global Transformation of Time, 1870 - 1950. "It was tremendously difficult even for lawmakers and at least moderately educated bureaucrats to imagine time as abstract and empty."
Today, when we talk about "standardization," we use the term retroactively. Back in the day, it was all about making time "uniform" -- "standardize" wasn't an abstraction that was around then.When the Gregorian calendar was presented as a 'universal world calendar,' the concept of "time" was an alien entity to most.
At the personal level, people were encouraged by this more precisely define their own "rest time” in hours. "Assigning certain divisions of time-specific tasks such as 'work,' 'leisure,' and 'rest gave rise to a heightened awareness for efficient time management among these collectives," Ogle wrote.
The propagation of a universal time started as an effort to spread the Gregorian calendar. Appeals were made to economic necessity, a common tongue to trade with far-off lands.
“Fine-tuning the rational time of trains and telegraphs, of schedules and timetables, and streamlining their administration became one of the major preoccupations of nation-states eager to cast a technocratic grid of time over national territory,” Ogle wrote.
It was a drawn-put and arduous process, one that had to interact with various political, social, material and cultural issues. “British scientific societies egged on government officials in London to endow the ‘crown jewel’ of the British Empire with a more ‘civilized’ mean time,” Ogle wrote.Some parts of the globe adapted more quickly than other regions. The French built an industry for precision watches. Arab intellectuals called for unifying time to the European standard in order to maintain a competitive footing. British India, on the other hand, saw resistance to the standardization, because it came from the "colonial state." Clocks and timepieces became status symbols in less-developed countries.
The effort was helped along mightily by two different groups: the railways and the astronomers, who joined forces for the cause of common time. It was the 1883 International Geodetic Association’s conference in Rome where the idea was raised to create a “prime meridian on which to base a system of uniform hour-wide time zones."
And when different railways in Germany and Austria-Hungary based their time on an one-hour offset to Greenwich, surrounding areas stepped in line as well.
"The interconnected world of the nineteenth century not only generated a reconceptualization of global time but also a new way of thinking about global space," Ogle wrote. The histories of nations were plotted into the grid of world time, and were compared against one another, perhaps for the first time. This arose evolutionary thought -- and the idea of globalization, where trade could flow across distant lands.
Global Time Synchronization
This is when the first attempts of clock synchronization were fielded. Most countries went with a master-slave setup, where one “master” clock were connected to an observatory, and the other “slave” clocks would be attached.
“As many clocks as possible cease being independent clocks when they give up their individuality and become part of a whole, a big ‘clock state’ (Uhrenstaat) with a head of state at the top,” one vendor enthused at the time.
Paris, however, eschewed electric coordination for a “complicated pneumatic mechanism that used a master clock but then sent not electric pulses but steam pressure through a network of underground pipes."
"But scientists and observers such as Robert Schram serve as an example for the way in which ideas moved and were subsequently appropriated for different purposes, with different functions in different contexts. International epistemic communities like that of the time unifiers facilitated the exchange of ideas and concepts via improved, accelerated, and cheapened means of (print) communication and transportation, and individuals like Schram played a crucial role in mediating between the worlds of science, railways, and government, in translating the concerns of one side into the interests of another."
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization,” she writes. “In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
The single most important intellectual device by which nineteenth-century observers gauged an interconnected and competitive world was comparison,” she wrote. “In this world, it was time that served to measure and establish difference.”
"The explanatory statement accompanying the law painted the picture of a world that was becoming smaller, in which exchange was proliferating and distances were diminished, and in which people, goods, and ideas incessantly crossed national borders. 'As long as life moved overwhelmingly in narrow circles,' the draft bill stated, 'as long as traffic from one place to another was slow and the exactitude of determining time only low, local times … were sufficient for every single locality.'"
"Globalization is understood here in its broadest sense as the process of forging sustained political, economic, social, and cultural interconnections, exchanges, and dependencies between world regions and states."
Globalization vs nationalism: "The story of time reform thus raises perhaps the most challenging analytical question that every historian working on the global nineteenth and early twentieth centuries confronts: the relationship between increasing integration and connections between world regions and states on the one hand and the simultaneous rise of nationalism and powerful state apparatuses on the other."
"Evolutionary thought, so intriguing in the second half of the nineteenth century even in parts of the non-Western world, lent itself particularly well to diachronic comparisons of different stages of biological, social, and cultural development and refinement and became an underlying epistemic tool in many fields of knowledge production."
"The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed this relationship in an aphorism in 1878: Age of Comparison. The less men are fettered by tradition, the greater is the fermentation of motivations within them, and the greater in consequence their outward restlessness, their mingling together with one another, the polyphony of their endeavors."
"What scientists had in mind in devising a scheme for worldwide time zones was, after all, an incredibly ambitious project ... It was tremendously difficult even for lawmakers and at least moderately educated bureaucrats to imagine time as abstract and empty."
“Evolutionary thought, so intriguing in the second half of the nineteenth century even in parts of the non-Western world, lent itself particularly well to diachronic comparisons of different stages of biological, social, and cultural development and refinement and became an underlying epistemic tool in many fields of knowledge production.”
“History as a discipline emancipated itself from philology and other fields and became an integral part of the university as it emerged in its modern form. Other sciences such as archaeology and geology were similarly investigating historical time.”
“Historical times also helped create relations of difference by plotting the histories of nations and peoples onto a grid of universal, evolutionary time, thus situating national histories in a world of time.”
“But when internationalists talked about global governance and the implementation of reform schemes around the world, certain societies appeared more readily in conversations while others who might have simultaneously engaged in related discussions dropped off the map as being either unable—not yet ready to participate in such debates—or unworthy of association.”
"Outside scientific circles, the unification of time and the introduction of time zones were understood primarily as matters of regional integration and national state-building."
"Imperialism and colonialism constituted another form of interconnectedness and movement. Between 1876 and 1913, roughly a quarter of the globe came under some form of Western colonial power."
Artwork for this article from Richard Kalina.