marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,

Keeping Watch

Keeping Watch:  A History of American Time by Michael O'Malley

Before there was daylight savings vs. standard, before there was standard vs. local -- there was apparent vs. mean time.  And this books traces the history of how views of time changed.

If you chop up the year into days and say each one has twenty-four hours and noon's in the middle, the point at which the sun is at zenith will vary from it.  Fifteen minutes ahead at some points of the year, fifteen behind at others.  New Haven CT had the problem in spades because they had two publicly viewable clocks, one of which showed apparent time -- when the sun was actually highest -- and the other mean time, which averaged those solar times.

Many people went by solar time.  After all, you could pull out your almanac and adjust your own clock at sunrise.  And they were starting to have clocks.  The first use of standardized parts was for the "pillar and scroll" clock, made out of wood, and for the first time, without having received an order in advance; he would make them and then sell them, or get peddlers to sell them. 

The notorious inaccuracy of watches and clocks much enlivened the disputes over time over the next century.  They would have "time balls" that some reliable source -- such as the Naval Observatory -- would have fall and rise exactly at noon.  People would stop their doings to stand with watch in hand ready to adjust.  Railroads ordered conductors to pick up two watches, check the time against the station clock, and then give one to the engineer  This would allow them to  check the time in the stations along the tracks.  And the trains were using the local time of their biggest city long before they thought to standardize it.

It wasn't only trains.  Weather reports were more difficult when you needed to be able to compare things from one location to another.  The trains finally did determine the zones, chiefly because they were afraid the government would step in.  And this was greeted with much more furor than it may appear.  Courts declared that the trains did not have the power to interfere with times in contracts, which had to go by local time.  (There were complaints about standard time zones in Iran in the 1980s.)

Americans were mass-producing watches in time for there to be a "soldier's watch" for the American Civil War -- as good as Swiss ones, and cheaper.  Readers would instruct the children on the need for punctuality -- though they could also include a story like one in which a clock jeered at a sundial for being useless without the sun, and the sun came out, to show that the clock was off by over half an hour.

Sears, Roebuck started when Sears found himself with a crate of accidentally delivered watches.  He did so well selling them he went into the business of doing so.

Watches almost always were decorated with rural themes.

The furor over daylight savings was part practical -- dew would make some farmwork impractical, and cows did not adjust -- and part a rage at the high-handed "progressive" politics.

The chapter on movies is a little weak.  It's interesting to note the transition from continuously displaying films to set start times, but he tries to shoehorn it into his themes awkwardly.

Still intriguing book.  And one flaw I see in many historical novels or fantasy works is that they do not realize that the measurement of time has had its limitations on a scale sufficient to mold how people think of time.
Tags: history reviews: 19th century-wwi, story time, world-building: technology

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