Gotta Minute? Time has a History

Listen to the Story

It is the time of the year when we begin talking about time once again. The seasons are changing, the weather is changing, and in the words of Bob Dylan, “the times they are a changin’.”

What exactly is this thing called “time.” Well, in one rather direct sort of sense it is a measurement of how things change. Something looks one way at one moment and looks a little different a moment later. And time passes. If nothing ever changed, time would never pass.

But things do change and time does pass. When enough things change and enough time passes, places and people come to have a history.

And that is where I come in.

Historians like me are obsessed with time. It is the basic measure of how we do what we do.

So today, it might be well to take a bit of a look at time and how we measure it. Like most things historical, it is not as simple as one might think.

For most of human history, people have measured the day by when the sun comes up to when the sun goes down. And people used sticks in the ground, marks on the wall and eventually “sundials” to tell us what time it was. And some of us still do.

But the time in Columbus is not the same as the time in Boston of New York or Philadelphia. And it certainly is not the same as the time in San Francisco. The sun simply gets to many of these places sooner or later than here.

For most of the first hundred years of our history, no one cared what time it “really” was in Boston when it was midnight in Columbus.

Then the trains came. The owners of railroads soon discovered that all of these different times in all of these different places not only were quaint – they kept the railroad from running properly.

In 1883, after a number of years of experimentation, the railroads instituted “railroad time.” The point was very simple. Your town could use whatever time it felt like using. But people wanting to catch the train had to follow railroad time.

Fifty years later, the federal government adopted the system, with a few adjustments for the country as a whole. Since then we have all been using the same time – more or less.

After adopting uniform standard time and splitting the country into time zones to accommodate a big country and a slow moving sun, there would still be the issue of daylight savings time.

Some people liked it. Other people abhorred it. But in the end it was adopted as well across most of the country most of the time. And soon we will follow the old rule of “fall back and spring forward” to adjust our watches and clocks to the passing of the season.

And noon will become an hour sooner than it once was.

Noon is an interesting word. It comes from “nones” or ninth in Latin and was observed as the ninth hour after the day began at 6:00 AM. It was 3:00 PM and the time when people sat down for lunch. In the twelfth century in western Europe the time for prayers shifted from the ninth hour to the sixth hour and with it the time to eat one’s midday meal. Noon became the noon hour we know today.

Time seems to be what we make of it – and what we make it to be.

Comments