Booked: A Global History of Time

The Makkah Royal Clock Tower in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Yasser Abusen / Flickr)

Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this interview, he spoke with Vanessa Ogle about The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950 (Harvard University Press, 2015).

The steady passage of time provides contemporary life with its foundation—a background so indispensable that it becomes, for the most part, invisible. Like everything else that matters, however, time has a history. With The Global Transformation of Time, Vanessa Ogle uncovers that history, turning calendars and clocks into the stuff of utopian dreams and ferocious contestation. Writing the history of time, she demonstrates, requires grappling with issues that continue to define our world: the tangled careers of globalization and nationalism, the struggle to reconcile uniform standards with stubborn diversity, the local origins of global ambitions, and much more besides. Matters of both geopolitics and everyday life, these are some of the most daunting questions confronting interpreters of either the past or the present. For anyone seeking to make sense of them, The Global Transformation of Time will prove an essential resource.

Timothy Shenk: At the end of the nineteenth century, you write, “it was tremendously difficult even for lawmakers and at least moderately educated bureaucrats to imagine time as abstract and empty.” Today, the idea of time being anything other than abstract and empty is what’s hard to grasp. How was time understood before its standardization?

Vanessa Ogle: It’s easy to forget how recently people struggled to think about time as we think of it today. For much of history, time meant local time, taken from the position of the sun in the sky. Uniform, standardized mean times, on the other hand, are less directly attached to the sun. Our present-day system of mostly hour-wide time zones means that in Europe, for example, mean time can commonly diverge from local time by as much as half an hour. Contrary to a century ago, the vast majority of people today don’t think or care about this divergence. This is a big change from the beginning of the twentieth century, when such differences were thought to interfere with all kinds of habits and rhythms. The sun and the seasons were seen to determine the course of daily life, in sometimes irregular fashion. Work on the farm was often more intense during harvest times and slowed down during other parts of the year. Work in the morning started early for those who milked cows and later for those harvesting the corn after the night’s dews had dried off. For far longer than historians usually believe, people understood biophysical rhythms of wake and sleep, even meal times, to be regulated by natural timekeepers and thus to be unchangeable and fixed.

Shenk: The campaign to make time uniform gets underway, you note, at the close of the nineteenth century, which means that for the overwhelming majority of human history it was not seen as either a pressing or a practical concern (or both). What changed, and who were the major advocates of this shift?

Ogle: What compelled a small group of European and American scientists, railway officials, and observatory heads to push for the adoption of a system of worldwide time zones was the impression of an increasingly globalized society. They saw themselves as providing the infrastructure for that brave new world. Telegraphs, steamships, and railroads seemed to suggest that the world was becoming smaller, and that everything was somehow connected—not unlike contemporary talk about a global village. A system of standard time would allow for fast and easy calculation and comparison of time differences. Uniform time would lubricate the flow of goods, capital, and people.

Shenk: One of the most impressive things about the book is how genuinely global it is. Decisions made in Bombay and Beirut are just as significant as what takes place in London and Paris. That departs from the way historians have usually thought about the history of time, where ideas born in the metropole eventually make their way to the colonies. What do we gain by shifting the optic like this?

Ogle: There are many insights to be gained from adopting a more global perspective, but two are particularly important. The first concerns the dynamics at work in a globalizing world. The move toward implementing a system of uniform time zones based on the prime meridian at Greenwich, United Kingdom, certainly originated in the Western world. But nineteenth-century globalization inspired an astounding number of people across the globe to simultaneously think about changing notions of time and space on their own terms. In other words, they responded to similar overarching political, economic, and social transformations, but without a direct transmission from an “origin” to a number of other, non-Western destinations. The changes in ideas about time, especially during the first decade of the twentieth century, were too simultaneous to be directly inspired by one another. The origins of modern time are multiple.

The second advantage of a global perspective concerns Europe. My book is an attempt to write European history from a global vantage point by comparing Europe to other parts of the world. Both Euro-Americans and Muslims in the Arab world and beyond were experimenting with universal time. But only Europeans and Americans designed universalizing schemes such as standard time or a world calendar to be implemented everywhere and substituted for existing arrangements. When Muslim scholars discussed an Islamic calendar that would unite all Muslims, they never meant for it to replace existing calendars. Comparing the two brings out both the specificity of European history as well as its unexpected similarities with other histories.

Shenk: The book is preoccupied with what you call “perhaps the most challenging analytical question” that global historians of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries face: how can we reconcile the twinned ascents of globalization and nationalism? What does the history of time reveal about this larger puzzle?

Ogle: It’s a larger puzzle indeed, one that extends into the twenty-first century. The relationship of the nation-state to what we commonly call globalization is far from settled. One interpretation has been to characterize the rise of nationalism as a backlash against globalization—keeping immigrants out, shielding domestic economies through protective tariffs. But as the history of time shows, there’s more to this.

The impression of a globalizing world evoked a sense of competition among great powers and encroachment among weaker countries. From the vantage point of observers in the non-Western world (the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan), the nineteenth-century global village was what remained after Europeans had placed territory after territory under colonial rule. In consequence, globalization and the transformation of time were interpreted and implemented to serve nationalist and regionalist politics. In Germany for instance a national time zone became an instrument for creating unified, homogenous national space, where one time ruled instead of various regional times. In colonial Africa, governments often used mean times that could differ from Greenwich by half an hour or twenty minutes or whatever suited the particular colony or group of colonies best in their view, based entirely on regional considerations of feasibility. Reformers in the late Ottoman Levant viewed time management as a tool for self-strengthening that would reinvigorate Arabs and allow them to stand up against European colonialism.

What is more, the international circulation of ideas often fed into national state-building efforts since so much of the knowledge that was traded internationally was about the state and the nation in one way or another. Scientists and diplomats who exchanged ideas about time zones at international conferences or in internationally circulating magazines and newspapers gave administrators and reformers the tools for building stronger nation-states. In other words, globalization contributed to the formation of nations and regions as it propelled nationalism and state-building on the level of ideas and ways of thinking about the world as much as on a more structural level.

Shenk: When most historians think about time, the first name that pops into their heads is probably E. P. Thompson. His article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” is a classic, and Google tells me that more than three thousand works have cited it since it was published in 1967. Your book is one of them, but it offers a very different interpretation of time’s history. Can you explain Thompson’s position, and where you break from it?

Ogle: Wow—maybe I should have checked the number of citations before I chose to disagree with Thompson? On a more serious level, it is and remains a classic, and as a teacher, it’s a great article to assign to illustrate the kind of work historians do, the kinds of questions they ask. Thompson argued that sometime around the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, people abandoned “task orientation,” that is, spending time as necessitated by performing certain irregular tasks—cutting the corn during harvest, milking cows. By the middle of the twentieth century, people led time-oriented lives toiling under the merciless regime of the workplace overseer. Changes to the work day led people to view time as the monetized time of uniform working hours. Following this line of reasoning, the adoption of mean times and the proliferation of clocks and cheaper wristwatches in the second half of the nineteenth century showed how time was increasingly understood to be abstract rather than tied to certain tasks.

I found this argument intuitively convincing until I began reading discussions about daylight savings in the first decades of the twentieth century. It turned out that hardly anyone, certainly not workers, government officials, legislators, and other moderately educated Europeans, could imagine time as detached from natural and biophysical rhythms. There was, therefore, a widespread belief that with the adoption of something like standard or daylight saving time, meal times, working hours, and even railway timetables would have to be adjusted to fall at the same “actual” point in time as previously. I took this to show how people lived simultaneously in multiple times—the regularized, uniform times of disciplined work, the natural times caused by the earth’s movement, as well as religious time.

In an evil twist, this also meant workers could be subjected to the discipline industrial capitalism demanded and generated in the absence of a large-scale distribution of accurate time, without the proper application and understanding of mean times and abstract time. Workers internalized the discipline of the workplace but without conceiving of time as abstract and uniform. They comfortably continued to inhabit several different regimes of time. Capitalism therefore did not need uniform, abstract time to expand across the globe. Workers submitted to capitalist discipline without the aid of abstract clock time and uniform mean times. This is why there were so few capitalists clamoring for the adoption of uniform time—they could do perfectly without.

Shenk: “Outside of Europe and North America,” you write, “there was no system of time zones at all . . . prior to the middle decades of the twentieth century.” That’s much later than historians have typically assumed. Why did earlier scholars miss this struggle, and why was there so much resistance to establishing time zones in the first place?

Ogle: Indeed, this goes against much of what historians thought they knew about time zones. The main reason lies in the archives. Those who have written about standard time are often historians of science who work with the papers of observatories, scientists, and international conferences. But when you look at government archives, which show the process of implementing and legislating time, a very different picture emerges: one of patchy application, and also indifference. Indian nationalists in Bombay did resist what they considered “British” Greenwich time for almost fifty years, but it was more the logic behind adopting mean times that made for such a slow universalization of standard time. Based on regional and national considerations, mean times with half-hour, quarter-hour, and even twenty-minute differences from Greenwich often seemed more fitting, given local climates and conditions of daylight depending on latitude. War and occupation in the first half of the twentieth century also brought with them such frequent time changes that there was hardly any stability. Invading and occupying powers changed times in places to suit their own organizational and administrative practices.

Shenk: To flip the last question around, given how much resistance supporters of uniform time faced on the ground, why did they win out so completely?

Ogle: Uniform, hour-wide time zones became the global norm mostly in an additive and unintended process. By the time this happened around the mid-twentieth century, the internationalist movement that had initially propagated such a system had long since faded. It was a combination of the globalizing impact of the Second World War and the rise of military and commercial aviation that ultimately created a now more practical rather than ideological concern for uniform time. But even today some countries use time zones as expressions of nationalism: China observes one single time for the entire country, and North Korea just adopted a mean time of 8:30.

But uniform time only won out if we consider calendar time to be a separate matter, and that was not always what historical actors thought. The movement to unify clock times was intertwined with another effort: to introduce a standardized, uniform world calendar. We have forgotten about it because it failed due to vocal protests from different religious groups. As a result, while the Gregorian calendar has certainly become widely used in many non-Western parts of the world, other calendars rooted in local religions and beliefs remain simultaneously in use. At the beginning of the twentieth century, calendar reform garnered even more attention than the reform of clock time. Yet only one half of that effort, the introduction of uniform time zones, came to succeed.

Shenk: Religion might not seem like it would be an important factor in a history of time, but it’s central here, both as impetus and obstacle to reform efforts. From missionaries proselytizing for both Jesus and the discipline of the clock to worshippers using prayer times to keep track of their days, faith is everywhere. The most extended discussion of this relationship occurs when you turn to Islam. How did Islam shape the politics of time, and does this history tell us anything about Islam more generally?

Ogle: Religion ultimately caused calendar reform to fail, when religious leaders in Europe and the United States voiced their opposition to calendar reform ever more forcefully in the interwar period. Time was and is central to Islam. Wherever Muslims lived in significant numbers, the fivefold daily call to prayer continued to regulate daily life even in the presence of mechanical clocks.

Time was important to other religious rituals as well. During the holy month of Ramadan, for example, Muslims are obliged to fast from sunrise to sunset. And Ramadan, like other months and holidays, had to be timed by determining the start and end of a month in the Islamic calendar. This was done by observing the sky and spotting the new moon. Around 1910, a controversy among Muslim scholars erupted over whether it was in accordance with Islamic law to use a telegram to establish the beginning and end of the holy month of Ramadan, and thus to determine the Islamic calendar. It’s a fascinating debate about the incorporation of new technologies into Islam, and about the permissibility of using technology to determine religious time. Was it in accordance with Islamic law to simply send a telegram that reported a moon-sighting somewhere in a remote province, and to then have a judge rule that the month (and the fast) had begun, based on such a telegram? Was technology reliable and trustworthy enough to be deployed in the service of religious time? The debate reveals an Islam that is preoccupied with science, and with combining the natural time of the planets with scientific calculations and rationality. It also shows Islam to be a system of thought that was malleable enough to accommodate and integrate innovations into existing legal frameworks.

Shenk: References to an increasingly globalized world, where borders are eroding and people brought closer together, have become an almost unavoidable trope. You call this “connectivity talk,” and you think it misses out on a lot of what’s most important about the history of globalization. But, as you acknowledge, it’s also linked to the increasing excitement for global history—a trend that has helped bring us your book. What do you believe that “connectivity talk” obscures about globalization, and what lessons does that have for those of us who want to understand its history?

Ogle: The current interest in global history is undoubtedly part of the realization that we are living in an increasingly globalized world, even though global history and globalization are not synonymous. But such assessments are not merely descriptive. Connectivity talk risks making itself the normative mouthpiece of all kinds of highly ideological utopias, from Silicon-Valley inspired visions of a networked world to free-market capitalism. Stories about connections, flows, and exchanges across continents and regions are fascinating but they can obscure the conditions of interconnectedness: nationalism; war; the centrality of empires; new centers of power; entrenched economic inequality and divisions of labor. Global histories should avoid following the ideas and exchanges among international organizations and experts alone and instead remain grounded in various national and local archives and languages.

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