Is time really moving faster? The story of time measurement

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Talk to almost anybody and you’ll hear about how rushed their lives are and how they never seem to have time for anything. Talk to older people and they’ll tell you about how their growing up years were slower and gentler. So has time measurement changed? Are we measuring it differently now?

Think about life in an agricultural society. Nature set the pace there. Farmers woke up when the rooster crowed, ate their mid-day meal when the sun was right overhead, brought their animals home to the barn at dusk and went to bed, when night fell. A simpler time? Perhaps.

That worked when people lived and worked individually. Even when craftsmen and handloom workers worked individually or with a few apprentices, they had the luxury of doing things at their own pace, perhaps even taking a day off because they felt like it. But as work became more inter-connected and inter-dependent, that lifestyle began to change. And pretty dramatically at that.

The Industrial Revolution
Our modern value of time stems from the Industrial Revolution. It brought about a huge change in the perception of time. Time became more defined and standardized.

Factory Time

With the Industrial Revolution came factories. With factories came

The 8 hour work day
The 8 hour work day

machines. Machines were expensive to start and run. So the factory owners needed people to start and end work at specific times to maximize the use of their machines. And with that came the concept of factory clocks and loud sirens that aurally signaled to workers when they had to come in to work. Sirens or whistles would signal lunch times and break times. These break times were the only times that the machines would stop and fall silent. And gradually, all factory workers times and schedules got inextricably linked to the machine on-off times. Factory workers became slaves to time as demands for efficiency became greater.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, banks and other commercial activities began to grow to provide services for the fast growing and expanding factories. While workers at these commercial activities were not ruled by whistles or sirens, they too had specific, defined work hours. Easier perhaps than those of the factory worker, leading up to the term “banker’s hours”.

Transportation time.

With roads and turnpikes and tracks for steam engines criss-crossing the country, the Industrial Revolution completely upended travel in England. And from a time perspective brought about big changes. Towns generally went by solar times and kept it’s own local time. Even in a country as small as England, these times could

Owen Blacker
1913 time zone map of the US

vary by over 30 minutes if the town were on opposite ends of England. Now transplant that same system to the United States and see how much more complicated things become in this vast country. The greater speed of locomotives made inconsistent times even more difficult to control. Scheduling trains and stage coaches was a nightmare. So uniform time became a big issue. As a result in England, a uniform railway time was adopted, based on the Greenwich Mean Time, leading to the division of the world into time zones.

Military time

The mania for timekeeping and efficiency spurred by the Industrial Revolution made pocket and wrist watches very popular. And with the growth of wrist watches, life became simpler for the military. It was easier to coordinate attacks across larger geographical stretches with officers having synchronized wrist watches. For the most part, officers were expected to purchase their own wrist watches, preferably with a luminous (radium coated) dial and an unbreakable crystal. By the end of the First World War, all officers and soldiers in the British Army had been issued wrist watches. The wrist watch made it simpler for soldiers to check the time, without having to take their hands off the gun to take out a pocket watch. After the war, men continued to wear their wrist watches, propelling them into the mainstream.

The number of minutes in an hour or the number of seconds in a minute has not changed over time. But the ruthless efficiency demanded by the Industrial Revolution, has regulated our lives and made more synchronized withe clock, rather than with the natural rhythms of nature.

 

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