Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What Hath God Wrought? How Modern Time Was Born Today

One hundred and sixty seven years ago today, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram from Washington D.C. to Baltimore with the message "What hath God wrought?" It was the first non-local instantaneous transfer of human thought in history. The world, which was almost unfathomably large, had begun to shrink. That I could know what was happening there while still being here, separated space from time.

It was also on this day one hundred and eighty one years ago that the first commercial railroads became operable -- again connecting Baltimore with the outside world, in this case westward with the B&O lines -- making it possible to get from place to place in time-spans that were previously unthinkable. Again, the world shrunk.

But it not only changed our view of space, also time. The trains moved fast and space was no longer the obstacle it had been. But that speed came with danger. Trains used the same tracks and to avoid deadly accidents, switches had to be changed with precisions that were not previously needed. Time became a matter of life and death.

But this time needed to be a universal time, that is, when the conductor coming east from Pittsburgh checked his watch and the conductor going west from Philadelphia checked his watch, they needed to say the same thing. But time in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were different. Noon is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. But since Pittsburgh is west of Philadelphia, noon happens there later. When the train conductors looked at their watches, where was the time to be set? The difference from town to town was enough to wreak havoc on the railroads. A standard needed to be set for safety's sake.

And so it is that a movement began that gave us time zones, regularity across the entire planet. The observatory at Greenwich became the zero point -- partially because astronomers also had need for very accurate time measures, and in part because the French had the official meter stick and if the French were going to be the holders of the unit of space, then the British were going to claim the standard for time.

So it is that the advances of May 24 gave rise to the need for time as we know it.