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Notes on the Murder of Time

for the Atlantic City Press

Time ain't what it used to be. 

Once it flowed languidly through the day. Workers judged their progress by the sun. Speakers timed their speeches by the flow from a water bowl. Now, seconds distinguish a productive worker from an unproductive one. Whole time zones rise and rush off to work together. 

Without the concept of an hour, we'd have no rush hour, no happy hour, no hour of trial, no finest hour. Without the concept of hour, we wouldn't move clocks forward for Daylight Savings Time. We couldn't lament losing an hour of sleep: We'd have no hour to lose.

Is there no end to the tyranny of clocks? 

"Once you start marking off intervals of time, it gets less organic," said Nathan Sivin, professor of the History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

"A farmer doesn't need to know what the hour is. He knows when it's time to rise, when it's noon. He knows that dawn comes at different times in the year. The clock is irrelevant to him."

We've had mechanical clocks for several centuries, and since then time has changed. Mechanical clocks made factory production possible. Also train travel and global navigation. They divided the globe into time zones, and gave people living far apart one thing in common: the hour.

But clocks changed time while measuring it.

"By using clocks we turned time into an efficient medium and standard, and made quantified time more important than seasonal time," said Jeremy Rifkin, author of "Time Wars," a history of the control of time.

Clocks took the fluid medium of time and broke it into the countable fragments of minutes and seconds. Countable time is controllable time. The invention of clocks did more than put everyone in the same hour. It helped the rise of economic engineering. 

With everyone sharing the same hour, whole communities could mobilize for concerted work. Daily life got organization it never had. 

"In effect, railroads invented a new kind of time," said Randall Miller, professor of History at St. Joseph's University and author of a textbook on technology. 

"The trains had the task of traversing vast distances in a timely way that everyone could understand. The railroads invented times zones, which the United States government later adopted." 

The invention of time zones came inevitably with the Industrial Revolution, Miller said.

"One of the major emphases of 19th century American industry was to get control of costs," said Miller. "They asked, "How can we break the industrial process down to simplest components and be more efficient?' And that meant getting control of time."

Not everyone calls this an improvement.

"Through most of human history," said Rifkin, "our personal biological rhythms were attuned to the circadian, lunar and seasonal cycles. Every organism has evolved temporally to be in synch with the rhythms of the larger biosphere. When we quantify time, we dissociate ourselves from the natural rhythms. We give up the kind of time we were designed for." 

* * * * *

The first mechanical clocks had no faces, only bells. They resided in the towers of medieval monasteries, tolling the monks to prayer. Eventully they spread to the belfries in towns, and finally to individuals' homes. 

The biggest technical leap came with the escapement, invented in the 13th century. This cog-and-rocker device lets a slowly falling weight power a clock.

The clock dial and hour hand came later, the minute hand later still. The second hand didn't arrive until the 1700s. Each new hand represented a new subdivision of daily life. 

Sivin said clocks got more complicated as government and business did. Clocks could survive only in bureaucratic institutions. They throve in the church because only the church survived the collapse of the western Roman Empire. 

Clock time took a while to catch on. The first mills in Scotland recruited starving Irishmen for workers, who tried to leave after noon, their normal quitting time. Soon enough they surrendered to the rule of the clock and worked until evening.

As clocktime spread, it helped to conquer geography. In 1714, the British Parliament offered a prize for the invention of a clock for use aboard ships. Britain didn't just want a ship's clock, though the contest produced a good one: the springwound clock, powered by a coiled spring rather than a pendulem.

More, they wanted a way to keep European time in the ocean. With such a device, sailors could compare English time to the solar time at their ship's location, and calculate their distance from shore. Springwound clocks made global navigation possible. 

Electron clocks now measure nanoseconds _ billionths of a second _ the time it takes an electron to move across a computer chip. In other words, clocks now measure time in units that can't be experienced by human beings. Time has completely transcended its cyclic basis. 

"The best analogy for this is the shift in children's watches from analogue to digital faces," said Rifkin. "The analogue face is circular, so it still implies that time is a cycle. With a digital watch, the number is in a vacuum. It's the eternal present. We have a whole generation of youngsters living in the ever-present moment. 

"These are the subtle things that change our social and ecological existence."

* * * * *

Moving clocks forward _ as we did this morning _ shows another way clocks manipulate time. In theory, Daylight Savings Time provides more daylight hours in the evening. But it also streamlines production and conserves energy.

Great Britain and the U.S. began setting clocks forward during World War I. Many cities continued to use Daylight Saving Time between the wars, and many states voted to do so after World War II. 

In 1967 an act of Congress established Daylight Saving Time from the last April Sunday to the last October Sunday. Yet states can still refuse Daylight Saving Time if they want. Many individuals would love to.

"Jet pilots who cross times zones can have very real problems in adapting to those changes," said Ira Black, chairman of Neuro-Science and Cell Biology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. 

"Night shift workers have similar problems. That's really the issue of changing time writ large. Cyclic time is central to our lives. Our brain has learned over the eons to internalize the external periodicity. When we change course in time, we all have to adapt in our own way."

* * * * * 

So if clocks run everything, can you still relax, do nothing? 

Of course. But nothing doesn't just happen anymore. Nothing must be scheduled.

"Before clocks, most craftsmen made things in their houses. There was no decisive break between leisure time and working time," said Sivin. But the schedule of industrial production, which we still largely follow, regiments part of the day and forgets the rest.

Thus, people squander their leisure hours, Sivin said. Leisure pursuits become synonymous with dullness. This is poor service to leisure activities, which Aristotle praised as the highest of human endeavors. To follow them today you must be ruthless.

"One of the dangers of following the clock too closely is, you tend to pay attention to the outcome of your task instead of the process of enjoying it," said David Fagley, professor of Psychology at Robert Wood Johnson. 

"If I have an appointment, I'll get there. But if I have open time, I tend not to honor it. Suddenly you look up and your week is gone and your kids are grown up. 

"So this is a very common time management technique: You make some time for yourself, you make an appointment with yourself. And you respect it."

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