The American Pursuit of Time

KEEPING WATCH: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN TIME By Michael O'Malley, New York: Viking, 384 pp., $19.95 `TAKE time before time takes you,'' said the sign in front of a big white clapboard Unitarian church one recent Sunday. Had Michael O'Malley seen this pithy homily, he probably would have quoted it in his engaging history of the changing concepts of time in America.

A central theme of ``Keeping Watch'' is the tension between life's inexorable cycles and human efforts to manage moments, which is so aptly expressed in the churchyard admonition.

In tracing how time has been viewed in the United States since the early 19th century, O'Malley explains how ``natural'' time became an abstract, mechanical ``product'' that could be modified and controlled - and even sold. His thesis is that ``time is for the most part a plastic, changeable notion, a social creation.''

O'Malley begins with the debate about the town clock in New Haven, Conn. The year is 1826. Clockmaker Eli Terry had built a public timepiece that measured each day in equal hours - mean time.

But it seldom agreed with the Yale College clock, which was calibrated to tell solar - apparent - time. A lively newspaper debate went on for months as citizens ar-gued the merits of the two timekeeping systems.

The belief that time is a natural phenomenon, belonging ultimately to God, was widely held. As O'Malley shows, the idea was reflected in almanacs, schoolbooks, and household guides of the period. It made sense in a rural agricultural society in which Puritan theology still dominated and only local time really mattered.

As the nation grew, so did its view of time. Work moved from farm to factories, with their schedules and time clocks. Notions of leisure evolved. With westward expansion, observatories set up to measure longitude for more accurate land surveys became sources of accurate time.

Samuel Langley, who was later secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was the first to devise a scheme for selling observatory time to industries, railroads, and jewelers via telegraph signals. Time had become a commodity.

Yet in practice, time remained local. As railroads began to cross the continent, east-west schedules were complex and confusing.

Although scientific societies and observatories campaigned for uniform time and time zones based on the Greenwich standard already in use overseas, commercial interests led the way in actually effecting the change. In 1883, the railroads adopted standard time and four time zones for the United States. The nation fell into line, with few holdouts. But not until World War I was there a federal law defining standard time, and only in 1966 did Congress pass the Universal Time Act to establish a uniform, national system.

Using a wealth of both original and published sources (there are more than 60 pages of notes), O'Malley provides both information and insight on his subject. He draws not only on factual material (newspapers, magazines such as Harper's and Scientific American), but also on fiction and literature (Longfellow, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Thoreau) to support his analysis.

After discussing what the shift to standard time meant for American society, he describes the development of watches and their significance as symbols of individual control over time.

Frederick W. Taylor's stopwatch time-and-motion studies of work, which caused workers at the Watertown (Mass.) Arsenal to go out on strike, is a prime example of extreme ``scientific'' time management.

American filmmaking, in O'Malley's view, added another dimension to the technological restructuring of time: Moments are literally cut and spliced to create a new experience of time.

Echoes of the 19th-century debates over natural and man-made time surfaced again in the daylight-saving-time controversies of the early 20th century.

For O'Malley, this split in American attitudes was the essential meaning of the Scopes' trial of 1925. Evolution, after all, is a theory about time, a cosmic case of God's time versus scientific time management.

O'Malley's history of American time is a lively and readable narrative. His observations and interpretations are often astute and sometimes provocative. Has the mechanization of time made society into a clockwork machine, controlled by technology and commerce? Does standardized time conflict with the natural rhythms of life?

Most of us spend our days acutely conscious of time, but never give it any deep thought. ``Keeping Watch'' offers readers a fresh look at a timely topic.

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