Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Time Predicts the Future

One of the most reliable predictors of the future is the changing way in which we relate to time.

We know, for example, that before the Industrial Revolution, the consensus in agrarian America was that time belonged to God.  The good Lord had created light and dark and that was about all the time-keeping most people required.  Clocks could be helpful on cloudy days when noontime was obscured--Boston had a town clock in 1638, for example—but few Americans owned clocks (perhaps one in 50 in 1700).  And, everyone knew that clocks were not time per se, but crude mechanical proxies for what was really going on in the Heavens.

By 1820 things began to change, however, and it’s no surprise it reflected the rise of the steam engine, factories and the steady move from farm to city.

Pity the poor people of New Haven, Connecticut.  In 1826 they discovered themselves sitting between two clocks, one at Yale designed by the respected abolitionist Simeon Jocelyn, and the second, placed more recently in the New Haven town hall by America’s preeminent clockmaker,  Eli Terry.  Both were impressive pieces of work by acknowledged artisans.  The only problem was the Terry clock behaved erratically, falling as much as 16 minutes behind Jocelyn’s at certain times of the month, and then spurting ahead by about the same amount at other times.

It was, we now know, the battle between God and his Industrial Revolution.  Jocelyn’s clock was a phenomenon, defining time by the sun--called “apparent time”--with an ingenious mechanism that allowed the clock to vary as “noontime” declined in the sky.  Meanwhile, Terry’s clock offered “mean time," an average of the sun’s daily variation—and the radical idea that all hours should be 60 minutes long.

We know, of course, who won.  Today, Terry’s “mean time” rules, and noon is when our clocks and watches say so, the sun notwithstanding.  The need for uniform hours in a world of emerging merchant meetings and factory time clocks, assembly lines and canals and cities, was essential. 
 (Terry's factory produced 80,000 clocks in 1836.) What had once been driven by agrarian cycles, and concepts as simple as light and dark, was now about standardization and efficiency.

That was our future the people of New Haven could have predicted.

Then, of course, along came the telegraph and railroads, an oft-told story of the creation of time zones.   Funny enough, in 1877 Western Union sold a time signal (based on New York local time) to interested businesses and residents by placing a controlled clock in each customer's home or factory, charging an annual fee (kind of like cable TV), and then reselling precise time to its subscribers.  Six years later, the railroads adopted a uniform time of their own, essentially using the standard time zones we use today.  While there was great resistance (and still is in some places), the “future” of national travel, national markets, coordinated supply chains and distant buying and selling were all supported and clearly anticipated by standard time and time zones.

Today, time and its management is big business, the stuff of endless blogs, hacks, books and apps.  Few of us expect anything as radical again as wrenching time from God, or having it defined by railroads.  (Smartphones, yes; railroads, no.)  But a quick assessment of how time continues to evolve in our lives might still be a harbinger.

Incident 1: I was at a meeting just today, listening to a discussion about the release of a new product, and one of the managers asked that nothing be released during the Chinese New Year when it would be impossible to speak with suppliers if something went wrong.

When I began in business, Chinese New Year was about as global a holiday as America’s July 4th.  Now, it has to be figured into product development and launch schedules all over the world.

Care to predict that future?

Incident 2: I remember a World Series game played in Boston in 1967, being led down to the cafeteria (and a little black and white TV with rabbit ears) by teacher-fans who wanted to see (and, hence, we all got to) this weekday, afternoon game.  It might have been 2 p.m. in Boston so only 11 a.m. in Los Angeles and San Francisco, hardly a convenient time to see a baseball game.

Skip ahead 44 summers or so.  Last year there was great consternation on the East Coast--especially on sports radio--when both basketball and baseball playoff games began so late at night that an entire generation of Eastern school kids would miss them. But, a 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. start allowed West Coast viewers to get home from work and enjoy the games, and presumably optimized the viewership around the country.

The pull from East to West in my lifetime is palpable.

Care to predict that future?

Incidents 3, 4, 5: I was on a college campus the other day and my quick count showed about 1 in 10 students wearing a wristwatch.  I was in a CVS last weekend--mid August--and Halloween candy was already on sale. (That’s like the time warp in Rocky Horror.)  And, when the power goes out in our home, we end up resetting 8 or 9 devices—because everything from microwave to water softener now has a clock.

Care to predict any of those futures?

Incidents 6, 7, 8: A young man asked me the other day if I knew what time it was.  I looked at my watch and said, "Quarter to 3."  He looked at me with a blank stare.  "Oh, I said, 2:45."  He smiled and thanked me.  Churches around the country are adding services on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings because many Americans no longer have time on Sunday morning to attend.  And, I was with a 92-year-old friend last week who said he couldn't wait till the warranty ran out on his hearing aids in three years so that he could get a set with newer, better technology.  

Now there's a future worth predicting.

Columnist Charlie Pierce wrote:
We are a people now who expect a scheduled apocalypse.  The gospels have none of that, of course.  In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, ‘Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.’ 
Well, that may have been fine for Galilean fishermen and itinerant carpenters, but today, that simply will not do.  We are busy people.   We have Day Planners and BlackBerrys and telephones that can function as watches and calendars, all of them parceling out our lives for us, working the daily circumstances of being into their own accelerated realities.  We are booked solid.  Let us check.  We might be able to work the End of the World in sometime between lunch and that conference call to the coast.
We know what time zone our bosses, our factories and our supply chains are on. I know the time zone the local CVS is on, and the likely start time of this year’s World Series games (which will not be held in Boston).  I even have tricks for beating jet lag and tricking the circadian cycle of my body.

Every so often I wonder, though, like the good folks of New Haven must have back in 1826: What time zone do you think God is on?


  1. Eric,
    There is a discussion here in Maine about joining the Atlantic time zone, i.e., 1 hour ahead of EST.

  2. Nearly all the clocks in my house are digital, but I am still on analog time. Looking at a clock that says 5:35 I will still say, when asked, that the time is five-thirty -- unless I know that a more precise answer is required. More than that, my mind THINKS 5:30. I doubt the digital generation does that.

    Personally, I think God is going to have the last laugh. Or, as the old commercial had it, "You can't fool mother nature." We're still discovering ways in which altering perceived time is messing up our bodies. (See Blue Light Blues.)

  3. Just before Maine secedes from the Union, DeWitt? :)