The Global Transformation of Time: 1870 – 1950

This week’s guest post comes from our Modern & Contemporary research seminar speaker, Vanessa Ogle (University of Pennsylvania), who will present her work at the Centre on Wednesday 21 October at 16:15h.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight” 1914. Courtesy, Vanessa Ogle.

As new networks of railways, steamships, and telegraph communications brought distant places into unprecedented proximity, previously minor discrepancies in local time-telling became a global problem. In my forthcoming book, The Global Transformation of Time, I chronicle of the struggle to standardize clock times, calendars, and social time from 1870 to 1950 and highlight the many hurdles that proponents of uniformity faced in establishing international standards.

Yet clock times and calendars were not only concepts that were standardized and internationalized during the nineteenth century, like so many other subject matters and movements during the same years. Time also had a more foundational role to play in nineteenth-century globalization. A globalizing world led contemporaries to reflect on the annihilation of space and distance and to develop a global consciousness.

In his famous Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argued that print products and newspapers in particular, made it possible for dispersed audiences to conceive of themselves as belonging to the imagined community of a nation. Yet what Anderson did not see was that new means of communication and transportation encouraged contemporaries to imagine their nations and societies in the world, and to view them as members of a global community of nations and societies.

Time – historical, evolutionary, religious, social, or legal – served as the backdrop against which to imagine this global community, by comparing nations and societies and situating them in universal time. Time established the hierarchies that separated ‘advanced’ from ‘backward’ peoples in an age when such distinctions underwrote European imperialism.

Time thus became a universal language in which to make sense of an interconnected but heterogeneous world during the age of empire. Time’s role as such a universal metric meant that a surprisingly wide array of observers commented on varieties of time. Around 1900, the result was a striking simultaneity of ‘time talk’ around the globe. Involving German and French government officials, British social reformers, colonial administrators in Africa and Asia, Indian nationalists, Arab reformers, Muslim scholars, and League of Nation bureaucrats, such exchanges about time often heightened national and regional disparity.

For several decades, countrywide mean times were introduced first and foremost with national and regional concerns in mind. Germany introduced GMT+1 as “Central European Time” – Mitteleuropäische Zeit. “Mitteleuropa” was a designation drawn from the emerging discipline of geopolitics and denoted Germany’s ‘middling’ position on the continent as covering, at least in aspiration, much of the space between France in the West and Russia in the East.

In the colonial world, mean times were applied late and often designed for regional purposes. Half-, quarter, and even twenty-minute differences rather than even hours were therefore the norm rather than the exception. The standardization of clock times hence remained incomplete as late as the 1940s, about sixty years later than normally assumed. The much sought-after unification of calendars, entirely overlooked by existing research, never came to pass.

The Global Transformation of Time reveals how globalization was less a relentlessly homogenizing force than a slow and uneven process of adoption and adaptation that often accentuated national differences.

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