Selling the True Time: Nineteenth Century Timekeeping in America

Ian R. Bartky, Author Stanford University Press $57.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-8047-3874-3
Once upon a time it could be 3:30 p.m. in Albany, 3:35 in Vermont and 3:20 in Brooklyn, for when long-distance travel meant horses and canals, few people could be sure what time it was, and fewer stood to lose if they guessed slightly wrong. Technically right times (mean solar times), after all, varied from place to place: the sun sets in Albany several minutes before it goes down in Buffalo. But for railways, strict times were essential; without consistent scheduling, passengers missed connections--and trains could collide. An 1853 crash spurred railroad companies to buy exact times from astronomical observatories, whose measurements could be more precise than ground-level clocks. The next few decades saw regional and national struggles over synchronization, as railroads tried to standardize their systems while competing with one another--and to stave off congressional interference. Who would acquire the power to say what time it was? Bartky's specialized but absorbing study of time and timekeeping focuses on astronomers, railroads, inventors and politicians to tell the intricate story of how Standard Railway Time (adopted in 1883, and based on the Greenwich Meridian) came to be. Tracking Americans' shifting ""time awareness... from local to regional, and then to national time,"" the volume is the first broad study of 1800s timekeeping. Amply footnoted and sometimes dry, this is an academic book--but one that should draw serious readers from many fields. Much of it involves the history of science and technology, and the struggles inside and among scientific institutions. But political and business history also enter in: the tale of how most of us came to agree on the time provides, as Bartky says, ""an object lesson in how science, government, and private interest can interact."" 26 illus. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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