A modest proposal

Jack Beatty discusses the internet of 1883 in the Atlantic:

“The American boy of 1854 stood closer to the year 1 than to the year 1900.” — Henry Adams.

For the last year I have been trying to elongate Adams’s apothegm into a book. Change is my subject. “The historian, by the very nature of his task, must be concerned with change” Alfred D. Chandler Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning business historian, has written. “What made for change? Why did it come when it did, and in the way it did?” Business made for both the most palpable and the deepest-running changes in post-Civil War America, or so I will argue. It was the age of incorporation. The corporation, in Pauline Maier’s words, was “the most significant form of collectivism to emerge from the Revolution.” Men turned to it when their dreams outstripped their means, pooling their resources in corporations to achieve collectively what they could not achieve individually.

The cardinal achievement of the corporation in the nineteenth century was the conquest of American space. In 1841 to ship textiles from Concord, New Hampshire, to Boston via flat boat on the Merrimack River and the Middlesex Canal took four days. In 1842, with the extension to Concord of the Boston and Lowell railroad, it took four hours.

Railroads, to use a phrase that came into vogue in the 1830s, “annihilated space.” As I discovered in my researches, they did something nearly as dramatic to time. In Keeping Watch: A History of Time in America Michael O’Malley tells this story in delicious detail, and using his book and others, augmented by contemporary newspaper accounts in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, I retell it here.

On November 18, 1883, at noon, U.S. railroad corporations unified American time. Nineteenth century America was a temporal wilderness. In the 1850s Americans set their watches in as many as a hundred local times. Wisconsin alone had thirty-eight, Illinois twenty-seven, Indiana twenty-three. When it was noon in Chicago it was 11:27 in Omaha, 11:50 in St. Louis, 12:09 in Louisville, and 12:31 in Pittsburgh. Nine A.M. arrived thirty seconds earlier in Oakland than it did across the bay in San Francisco. In Kansas City jewelers competed in times, posting their nominees for noon, which varied by as much as twenty minutes. Punctuality was negotiable in Kansas City. An 1883 railway gazetteer included time conversion tables for more than 8000 stations. Fingers plowed the ink off dark columns of type, plotting a route across the temporal Babel. To depart a station under Time A for a station under Time B hoping to connect with another railroad operating under Time C required faith in the providence of algebra. Yet, perhaps because few traveled far, most Americans found this time-quilt tolerable, and many cherished it. They took nature’s word for time, and nature said it was noon when the sun was directly overhead, at times that differed with locations.

Town clocks, to be sure, were set not by sun dials but by almanacs that averaged the sun’s variations over months and years. A scattering of localities rented astronomically precise time from observatories, who wired them through Western Union. These innovations only wedded time the more exactly to place. “[I]t would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time,” a U.S. Senate report concluded in 1882, “as it would be to introduce among them novel systems of weights [and] measures….” The Senate did not reckon with a self-sovereign power that, having “annihilated space,” sought dominion over time in the name of safety and convenience. The sun told time from Genesis to 12:00 on November 18, 1883, when the railroads imposed standard time as if “ideas” and “habits” held forever were debris on the track to modernity.

“The sun is no longer to boss the job,” the Indianapolis Centennial lamented. “People, 55 million of them, must eat, sleep, and work as well as travel by railroad time…. The sun will be requested to rise and set by railroad time. The planets must, in the future, make their circuits by such timetables as railroad magnates arrange.” The railroad magnates rode the mystique of progress. With the founding of the Greenwich observatory in 1848, a world-wide movement to standardize time in zones of longitude gained momentum among scientists and other apostles of the future. That Greenwich promoted itself as the “prime meridian” consternated the French, who wanted Paris to hold that title. American time chauvinists likewise objected to “John Bull’s time.” The railroads themselves only slowly came round to the idea. Rate wars got in the way. But as competition yielded to consolidation, resistance weakened.

Standard time’s advantages were made vivid to railroad managers at an 1883 Railway Time Convention when William Allen, the editor of the Traveler’s Official Guide to railways, put two maps on display. One depicted the prevailing fifty different times in a fling of colors. The other showed four bands of color, north to south, 15 degrees of longitude apart. Here, Allen said of the old map, depicted in the clashing hues of competition, is “the barbarism of the past.” The new map, a consolidated rainbow, represented “the enlightenment we hope for in the future.” No more mind-taxing schedules; no more head-on collisions of trains operating in clashing times; no more time chaos. The delegates left persuaded. They made scant effort to persuade the country, however, announcing they were altering the pulse of the universe mere weeks ahead of the event. On November 17 city jewelers, The New York Times reported, “were busy answering questions from the curious, who seemed to think that the change in time would … create a sensation … some sort of disaster

We’ll add our usual two cents:

Here is the signal fact of our progress in the last century. If you were born in 1900, your life expectancy was in the forties, and GNP per capita was about $4000. If you are born today, your life expectancy in about eighty, and statistically, as an average American, you are ten times richer. In reality you are a hundred or a thousand times richer, if you factor in your ability to be in Paris tomorrow for $500, your ability to watch events from fifty years ago as they actually happened, etc., not to mention that your toddler’s severe pneumonia can be reliably cured in 48 hours or so. Only a little of this has to do with government. Mostly it is because far more than 50% of everything ever invented in the history of humanity was invented in the last 130 years, and perhaps 50% of that was invented by Americans. Milton Hershey invented the candy bar, Carrier invented the air conditioner for a tire plant, Sears invented catalogue distribution, Henry Ford invented cheap cars, some guys from Texas Instruments commercialized the transistor. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the invention and wide use of brand names, which communicate the quality and dependability of every product we buy. This alone deserves the Nobel Prize. And it was a large and growing market, the availability of risk capital, the development of standardized accounting principles, and protection of intellectual and personal property by the courts that made this possible.

Probably not feasible, but we think it would be great if there were a requirement that, in order to get a high school diploma, you had to spend two weeks at some facility in the countryside that was outfitted like a farm in 1854, and you had to milk the cows, feed the chickens, slop the hogs, get up with the sun, and so forth. No electricity, no phones, etc. The snowflakes think they are oppressed victims in the age of the greatest wealth and longevity in all of human history, precisely because they live in the USA, and not in Cuba or Venezuela; imagine what they’d be thinking by day 3 on the farm.

One Response to “A modest proposal”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    The interesting thing about the creation of ‘Railroad Time’ as it was called back in the day was that it was the product of private enterprise. Government saw no need to intervene in the chaos of different local time zones and the handicap that created for commerce. How different the world was, though the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) and the dawn of the regulatory age was only 4 years away.

    The Dinocrat’s comments about the achievements of the 19th century are spot on and well stated.

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