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Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century timekeeping in America. (Reviews).

Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America. By Ian R. Bartky (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xvi plus 3 l0pp. $45.00).

Three themes frame this interesting, slightly uneven book: first, the movement towards standardization of public timekeeping in the nineteenth-century United States; second, the development of technologies for time measurement, distribution, and synchronization; and third, the role of private (usually college or university) observatories in distributing public time, and their efforts to use time-services as a source of income for their research activities. This last strand is the "selling" referred to in the book's title; Ian R. Bartky, who has written several learned articles on the history of American timekeeping, weaves these themes together into a useful case study of the interplay among culture, technology, government, and business. The details of his various stories sometimes obscure the clarity of his overall presentation, but Bartky nevertheless provides social historians with a sense of the complexity and contingency involved in an important cultural change.

In the 1850s two sets of concerns pressed towards better coordination of public time provision. On one hand, railroads required accurate timekeeping for safe operation, the need for which was underscored by a string of fatal accidents in 1353, two of them attributable to poor time synchronization. On the other hand, observatories--including the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and a handful of institutions being run or projected by colleges or urban groups--promised the possibility of supplying accurate time signals for local and regional distribution. These concerns fostered the creation of systems for coordinating clocks set to the local times at particular longitudes.

Coordination was achieved by telegraph signals, transmitted along lines of railroad or across cities using newly installed fire-alarm telegraphs, or from local observatories to jewelers' or public clocks. Time-balls on prominent buildings, dropped at noon in accordance with observatory signals, were often advocated as of special value to mariners in port-cities. Various systems for electrical, rather than manual, transmission of such time signals came to be installed. Bartky traces the development of some of these, and the now-obscure territorial or jurisdictional squabbles to which they could give rise. As he implies, the different elements of this mid-nineteenth-century time system coincided as much by chance as by necessity. Astronomers and some horologists pursued exactly-measured time. Railroads and city-dwellers sought good synchronization of timepieces, rather than astronomical precision.

For a long time, though, little need was felt for time-standardization. Each length of railroad would be operated to a single local time, and the communities it served would often fall into step with this "railroad time," but the few advocates of standard time in the 1870s found railroad managers little disposed to listen to them. Observatories, meanwhile, were raising modest revenues from subscribers to their time signals, and had a vested interest in preserving the local-time system. Nevertheless, during this same decade what Bartky calls "a national view of time" (p. 91) was beginning to crystallize, the result of a combination of technical developments, government departments' rivalries, some astronomers' demands for better coordination of time-measurements between meridians, and the continued growth of railroad and telegraph traffic. When Charles F. Dowd had made his novel proposal in 1870 that the U.S. be divided into four standard time zones, his efforts met with no response, but by the early 1880s bus inesses, institutions and the public were much more receptive to the idea. States such as Connecticut passed laws adopting a single time as standard within their boundaries, but it was to be the agreement of the railroads, not government action, that produced the adoption of a national time-zone system in 1883. The unfortunate Dowd was left to argue over the credit for that achievement with the proposal's more immediate author, William F. Allen.

Bartky notes that the new Standard Railway Time, as it was known, was not universally popular, but traces much of the resistance to regions near the margins of time-zones where the disparities between solar time and standard time caused most inconvenience. As he plausibly suggests, the measure succeeded because it was a matter of indifference to most citizens precisely which standard the new time was based on. He also speculates that the fact that the railroads, not the government, brought in Standard Time, permitted the adoption of the Greenwich meridian as the basis for calculating American time, a principle confirmed by the international meridian conference held in the U.S. in 1884.

The last part of the book, however, demonstrates that beyond public view the story of standardization was one of many loose ends. A host of technical developments in the practical applications of electricity gave rise to rivalries, false starts, patent races and infringement disputes over the many methods for coordinating, synchronizing, or distributing time signals. Just as computing and internet technologies have spawned both innovation and confusion in our own time, so late nineteenth century people struggled to grasp the potentialities of the telegraph, the telephone, and electrical power. Astronomers adjusted their local time-services to standard time, conscious that this undermined their rationale for existing. When by 1890 the U.S. Naval Observatory seemed to be in league with Western Union to distribute Washington time nationwide, the private observatories mounted a vigorous effort to preserve their income-earning services. Although they largely lost this battle a number of them nevertheless managed t o maintain local time-services into the twentieth century. The central supply and coordination of time were never achieved.

Yet to most Americans, this remained an abstract and largely unheeded issue. If "time was money" to increasing numbers of them, it was never a lucrative commodity like other public utilities, and fights over it were usually institutional and brief, rather than public and drawn-out. Even the astronomers do not seem to have lost much. New forms of fundraising from alumni and the wealthy secured most university observatories better than revenues from time-services, and were probably less distracting from their research activities. Ian Bartky's meticulous research and careful presentation lay bare a process of change which, though it helped silently to shape our modem world and its assumptions, was by no means as tidy or logical as hindsight makes it appear.
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Author:Clark, Christopher
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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