A Briefer History of Time

How the World Adopted A Uniform Conception of Time

The four-faced Mecca Clock Tower is seen with characters that read "There is no god only the God, and Mohammed is his prophet" near the moon at the Grand mosque during the annual haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca October 22, 2012. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

In the spring of 1891, Count Helmuth von Moltke rose to speak in the German parliament on the adoption of “uniform time.” His 90 years of age barely showed; contemporaries later credited his energetic and inspiring speech with swaying an undecided audience toward the support of the proposed change of time. After several years of discussion among ministries, railway officials, legislators, and the public, Germany was finally ready to consider the nationwide implementation of a common mean time. It was less clear whether such a new time would apply only for internal use in telegraphy, railways, and perhaps select government offices, or whether the new mean time would be extended into all aspects of civil life. But in the fall of 1892 and again in the winter of 1893, the German parliament discussed a bill that proposed a new mean time for all of the German Empire—one that was one hour faster than Greenwich, United Kingdom. The bill passed and became law on April 1, 1893, for both internal administrative and external purposes of daily life.

Von Moltke was addressing a subject that was arguably one of the most important social, political, and cultural transformations wrought by a long nineteenth century: the emergence of modern times. In an arduous and drawn-out process, local times were abolished in favor of time zones and countrywide mean times; the Gregorian calendar spread to parts of the non-Western world; time was eventually severed from natural and agricultural rhythms and instead assumed a more abstract quality, a grid to be grafted onto natural rhythms; time was increasingly linked up with occupational notions—work time, leisure time, recreational time, time for acquiring useful knowledge. In many parts of the world, these transformations that lasted almost a century resulted in an even greater variety of times, as religious and other times and local calendars continued to be used alongside new ones. Hybridized and again transformed by changing patterns of communication and occupation in the postindustrial society, the modern times are still with us

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