For the most part, we take time for granted; maybe we don’t have enough of it, but we at least know how it works — well, most of the time. A lot of what we think about time is relatively recent, and some of what we take for granted isn’t quite as universal as one might think. This series of time-centric stories challenges what you know (or think you know) about the way time works around the world.
On the Clock by Kurt Kohlstedt
In The 99% Invisible City, authors Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt wrote about the standardization of time in the modern era, which was driven by the expansion of railways. Suddenly, high-speed transit collapsed both time and space, making it easier to go faster and farther while also forcing the world into fewer and fewer time zones.
But there’s one neat artifact in particular from that period which really brings the point home — and this one didn’t make it into the book. It’s this old, ornate clock that hangs on the facade of the Bristol Corn Exchange building in England. Strangely, it has not two hands but three. The third hand, painted black so it stands out, is set to London time, and it’s a holdover from a period when the world was transitioning from more local times to broader standardized timekeeping.
The railroad companies needed to keep precise track of London time, so they would send out people from London on trains with precisely tuned watches so that regional clocks like this one could be kept up to date. These timekeepers would arrive in a given town, hop off the train, and go show their watch to the station masters. Then, those same watch-bearing travelers would hop onto another train to a different city, updating clocks across the country, one station at a time.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around it now, but time had mostly been more local up until then. But as railroads expanded, local time had become a headache and even a safety hazard for railway operators. If someone got it wrong by even a few minutes, trains could literally crash into each other. Eventually, of course, there were global agreements around time, but some of the most fascinating remnants are things like this clock in Bristol which show how times change … over time.