station clocks had not one, but two minute-hands -- 4/18/17

Today's selection -- from The Pursuit of Power by Richard J. Evans. In the late 1800s, time -- and how it was calculated and kept -- changed:

"In the pre-industrial world, time was calculated in relation to the solar noon, which of course occurred at different times according to where one was located on the Earth's surface, and changed everywhere with the passing seasons. Few people had learned to tell the time from looking at clocks, a skill that was not taught in schools even where they existed, and the hour was only a very rough guide to the pas­sage of time; in most rural areas, church bells only tolled for services such as matins and evensong, providing an even more approximate indication of the time of day. The vast majority of people had little need to reckon time accurately to within the minute; often, indeed, clocks only possessed one hand, and the convention of marking the minutes as well as the hours only gained currency gradually. As increasing numbers of men and women migrated to the cities and worked in factories and mines for wages paid by the hour, so timekeeping became more important for employers and employees alike. In 1890 a machine was invented in America that stamped employees' cards with the time they entered the factory and the time they left. 'Clocking on' and 'clocking off' soon became widespread. To avoid being fined for late arrival, workers needed watches. World production of pocket watches, around 400,000 a year in the early nineteenth century, rose to more than 2.5 million a year by 1875. By the turn of the century, the German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915) was claiming that between them the 52 million inhabitants of Germany owned no fewer than 12 million pocket watches.

The clock on the Exchange showing the extra hand for "Bristol Time"

"In the early nineteenth century, each town or city in Europe kept its own time, setting its watches and clocks without much regard for the hours observed by its neighbours. Early factories still set their clocks by local time, but soon the impulse to standardize time became irresistible, and it was driven above all by the spread of the railways. Even in the mid-1870s, after Germany had been united in a single state, railway time­tables within the empire were still forced to base themselves on a bewildering variety of local times that varied from city to city, leaving it up to passengers to convert the time on the local clock to the time on their pocket watch. Railway companies found it necessary to standardize times for their own internal use, and were able to make use of synchronizable electric clocks, invented in 1840 by the Scotsman Alexander Bain (1811-77) and produced in large numbers from the mid-1840s onwards by the German clockmaker Matthias Hipp (1813-93). In Britain the Irish Mail train leaving Euston Station in London every morning carried an Admi­ralty messenger with a watch giving the correct London time, passing it on to officials on the Irish steam-packet at Holyhead to take to Dublin, and receiving it from them on the way back to return to London. By 1855, however, virtually all public clocks in the United Kingdom were set by Greenwich Mean Time, well before they were forced to do so by law
twenty-five years later, largely following the initiative of railway compa­nies that decided it was too complicated to take local times into account.

"In Britain many station clocks continued to have two minute-hands up to the end of the century and sometimes beyond, one showing Greenwich time and the other the traditional local time. Belgium and the Netherlands did not introduce a standard time until 1892, Austria-Hungary and Italy until 1893. The French railways, recognizing the centrality of Paris to their system, had standardized their timetables according to Paris time, but although an 1891 law made this legally binding for the whole of France, the railways fixed their station clocks five minutes behind this so that passengers would have time to board their train, while time on the tracks remained fixed at the national standard. In Germany it was not the railway companies or other economic pressure groups that proved the most powerful advocates of standard time, but the Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. He had already used railways to good effect in the wars of German unification to move troops rapidly across the land, and saw the continuing chaos of variable time zones as a major obstacle to military efficiency in the future. In the early 1890s he complained that 'we have in Germany five zones, a ruin that has remained standing out of the once-splintered condition of Germany, but which, since we have become an empire, it is proper to abolish'. Accepting the primacy of the Greenwich meridian, and advocating a national standard time based on the 15th meridian, just east of Berlin, Moltke went on to declare that what was needed was 'a unity of time reckoning for the whole of Germany'. It came eventually in 1893.

"The need to standardize time had already become urgent with the spread of telegraphing systems across not only Europe but also the world. The first submarine cables were laid across the English Channel in the early 1850s, and already in 1852, Edward Highton (1817-59), a pioneer of the electromagnetic telegraph, commented: 'Time and space are all but annihilated. Years are converted into days, days into seconds, and miles have become mere fractions of an inch.' It was not until 1865 that the Great Eastern, then the largest ship in the world, succeeded in laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. A frenzy of cable-laying followed, and by 1871 punters in Calcutta could learn the result of the Derby no more than five minutes after the famous horse race was over. The scale of the British Empire and the dominance of British industry ensured that in 1890 nearly two-thirds of the telegraph lines in the world were owned by British companies, which controlled 97,000 miles of cables. But the influence of the system extended far beyond the British Empire. The growth of the new global communication networks meant, as the Hungarian writer Max Nordau (1849-1923) noted in 1892, that the simplest villager now had a wider geographical horizon than a head of government a century before."



Richard J. Evans


The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914


Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK


Copyright 2016 by Richard J. Evans


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment