Friday, March 15, 2013

Inventing the tyranny of time

Time, what we can call hard edged time, is directly linked first to the subdivision of time into fixed divisions – hours, minutes, seconds – and then to the creation of clocks. By measuring and recording time, clocks accelerate its passing. They add to our sense of ourselves as ephemeral, passing. Without clocks, the days stretch before us. Time, hard edged time, creates spaces – blocks of time – that we have to get through in order to be somewhere else, to do something else. Now our life is determined not by where we are now, but where we might be at some future point. Scurrying to get there, the present loses its significance.

We forget how recent all this is. Over 99.99 per cent of human history, time has been set by natural rhythms: the sun, moon and stars; the natural sweep of the seasons. In this world, even in a civilisation as complex as the Roman Empire, it's hard to imagine the Emperor instructing his officials to undertake a time management course. Harder still to imagine Roman lawyers counting time in six minute intervals!

Clocks themselves have a very long history. However, time as we know it today, that demon on all our backs, owes its existence to two inventions. The first was the invention of accurate time keeping pieces to assist maritime navigation. Latitude can be determined by celestial navigation, but the determination of longitude requires accurate timekeeping to avoid errors. The second was the invention of the steam engine. This gave us larger factories and, most important, the railway. The railway gave us the timetable. More, it gave us standardised time.

The railways wanted to run to a timetable, but time varied between locality. In 1839 when George Bradshaw produced a compilation of the timetables of all British railways, a world first, local time was still set by the sun and varied between places. In NSW. for example, the first railway timetables showed Sydney and local time.

This type of thing was inefficient. Starting with the English Great Western Railway in 1840 which standardised on London time, railways introduced standard time. In NSW this was Sydney time, in Queensland Brisbane time, in Victoria Melbourne time. Just as we do today, a railway traveller crossing the border at Albury or Wallangarra had to shift their watches to local time.

This, too, was inefficient. Time zones were introduced to standardise time across broader areas regardless of variations in real local time as measured by the sun. Time had become measured, standardised, controlled and imposed;  new age had arrived; measured time had become our tyrant.


Anonymous said...


I wonder where the sundial sits in your thought that time of day wasn't really significant to Romans and earlier? And wasn't the study of the heavens fairly dependent upon timed sightings - not of the 'in a couple of days' sort.

For mine, I think of the 'tyranny of time' in a different light: there's far too much of it - unending, bland, same old same old. Sometimes I just wish it would just go away, and be done with me. Time unwanted is a sadist, I think.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. You are right, of course, but time as we know it today is still a new invention.

On the second point, you are again right. We live in a new age with an explosion in the number of single people, widowed and separated, who live alone without immediate human support networks. The number will grow and grow over coming decades.

I first came across this problem years back on a visit to Hervey Bay in Queensland. There at the local club dance, I watched the women now alone who had retired there but then lost their partners. They sat and listened to the music; a few danced with each other.

I don't have an answer, I wish I did. I haven't down a detailed analysis of this, perhaps I should, bit over the next twenty years the number of singles living alone without support is likely to quadruple. To them, time is quite likely to be an unwanted sadist.