Excerpt: Timekeepers by Simon Garfield


1st Jan 2015 Excerpts

Excerpt: Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

Time. You can waste it, stitch it, spend it and even warp it but where did our obsession with the concept of time begin? Simon Garfield's fascinating new book delves into our preoccupation with the ticking clock.

About time

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One of the many startling facts in Simon Garfield’s new book is that according to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, “time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language.

Yet, when it comes to the thing itself, our feelings are distinctly mixed. For many of us, our idea of bliss is being on a holiday where we don’t know, or care, what time it is. But in our everyday lives, time remains something between an annoying nag and a complete tyrant, telling us what to do and when to do it.

How this odd state of affairs came about is the subject of Timekeepers—at least according to the introduction. In fact, the book proves far more wide-ranging—and more occasionally random—than that.

Garfield does provide plenty of information about how working life became increasingly regimented—and how the rest of life has been speeding up too—plus the latest theories on time management.

Along the way, though, there are also terrific sections about our long-lasting fascination with Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile and the famous photograph of the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm—where a split- second image had a huge effect on public attitudes to the war.

But here, Garfield argues, is where the modern obsession with time-keeping really began: the coming of the railways


The excerpt


The first popular railway timetable combining several lines appeared in 1839, but carried an inbuilt flaw: clocks throughout Great Britain were not synchronised. Before the railway network few saw the need. If the clocks in Oxford ran five minutes and two seconds behind London time, or those in Bristol ten minutes behind, and those in Exeter 14 minutes behind (each city enjoying a later sunrise and sunset than London) it was a matter of adjusting your timepiece when you arrived. 

The clock at the town hall or main church tended to be the master time-keeper for the local community, the time still set according to the midday sun; a relatively static populace cared little for the time elsewhere so long as their own local timepieces ran at the same time. If road or waterway journeys were undertaken, the time differences would either be adjusted en route (some coaching companies provided adjustment lists), or judged to be commensurate with the unreliability of a traveller’s pocket watch or carriage clock. But with railways, a new time consciousness affected all who travelled: the concept of ‘punctuality’ was born anew. 

If railway station clocks were left unsynchronised, timetables between destination and arrival points would not only cause frustration, but would be increasingly impossible and dangerous to maintain. As railways filled the countryside, a driver’s watch at variance with another’s would almost certainly end in collision. And then, a year later, a solution was found. For the first time, timekeeping achieved nation-wide standardisation: the railways began to imprint their own clock upon the world.



"Time, our best and dearest possession, is in danger"



In November 1840 the Great Western Railway was the first to adopt the idea that time along its route should be the same no matter where a passenger alighted or departed. There were other maverick champions too. In 1842, Abraham Follett Osler, a glassmaker from Birmingham, believed so strongly in the establishment of standardised time that he took matters into his own hands. Having raised funds for a new clock outside the Birmingham Philosophical Institution, he proceeded one evening to change its time from local to London time (moving it forward seven minutes and 15 seconds). People noticed, but they also admired the clock’s accuracy; within a year, local churches and shopkeepers had changed their time to match it. 

By mid-century, about 90 per cent of Britain’s railways were running London time, although the regulation met a little local opposition. Many city officials objected to any interference from London, and showed their disapproval by maintaining clocks with two-minute hands: one denoting their local, older time. 

In an article titled ‘Railway-time Aggression’, a correspondent in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1851 offered comical disgust: ‘Time, our best and dearest possession, is in danger. [We are] now obliged, in many of our British towns and villages, to bend before the will of a vapour, and to hasten on his pace in obedience to the laws of a railway company! Was ever tyranny more monstrous or more unbearable than this?’


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