Time-Binding Time: A History of Time-Measurement and Time-Management in America

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO GENERAL SEMANTICS, time-binding--our ability to use language and other symbols to transmit information across time--is a unique characteristic that defines us as humans. That definition piqued my interest and I decided to do some historical research on how time-measurement and time-management have developed in America. (1)

Measuring and Managing Time: Pre and Post-Revolution

In the eighteenth century, America was largely a nation of small farmers and fishermen, and time was closely related to agricultural tempos, tides, weather, and seasons. Most Americans lived on farms and rural life consisted of lots of hard work tempered by impediments such as advancing darkness, inclement weather, and the vicissitudes of the growing season. Timekeeping, in the main, was ruled by the sun.

The sun appears to move across the sky from east to west and, in the eighteenth century, a community a few miles east of another would mark noon first and remain a few minutes and seconds ahead of its western neighbor--e.g., Albany, New York, a little to the east of New York City, was one minute one second ahead of Big Apple time. To know whether the sun had reached noon for the day (crossed the local meridian or line of longitude), one could consult a south-facing noon mark--the simplest noon-mark was a line running northsouth scratched into the horizontal surface of a floor or windowsill. Sundials were ubiquitous and measured time with accuracy that was close to the mechanical timepieces of the period.

Rural life did not cease at night--firelight, candles, and moonlight could be used for illumination. Almanacs forecast phases of the moon, as did mechanized indicators on clock dials (the dial of a tall case clock tracked the moon's waxing and waning). Almanacs also provided data that presumed a reader's capacity to recognize the brightest stars in the sky, to track the planets, and to use the heavens as a way to mark time.

Notions about time went beyond pragmatic use. The clock had become a compelling metaphor to explain how the universe operated (like a giant clockwork--rationally and in an orderly manner). Although Isaac Newton never employed the metaphor, he buttressed the idea of the orderly functioning of the cosmos through his magnum opus Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Newton postulated that matter moved in regular, predictable ways through space and time under the influence of gravity.

Newton's ideas about the disciplined working of the universe strongly influenced Enlightenment thought and science in the Colonies. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Newton's "natural philosophy" was a dominant doctrine in American colleges. To support texts that advanced the Newtonian view that time was absolute and one-way, advancing and constant everywhere, colleges hired master craftsmen to prepare three-dimensional teaching aids to link clocks, calendars, and nature. These clockwork-driven models demonstrated the relative motions of the solar system, the workings of the Newtonian universe.

Few clocks were made in America before the Revolution--most were imported from England. Although clocks could keep time to the second, there were clocks that only came with an hour hand. These clocks were usually reliable to the closest quarter hour--agricultural work did not have to be calibrated to the minute. But some individuals wanted to keep more accurate time. Thomas Jefferson installed a clock at Monticello in 1805 that had a dial with three hands to indicate hours, minutes, and seconds for scheduling indoor household chores.

Watches were also used in America to tell time. They were intriguing little mechanisms, somewhat expensive, and fashion accessories. A man wore his watch in his fob, a pocket with a horizontal opening below the waist of his breeches--consulting the time drew attention to the fact that a man was wealthy enough to own a watch. …