Science

On the clock: How the clock became king

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At 10 years old, Madeline was becoming a little obsessed with her alarm clock. So her mom took it away. 

But Madeline isn’t alone. Maybe you just glanced at a timepiece on your wall, your wrist, or your car dashboard. Or maybe you just checked the time on your computer or your phone, as it queries an internet server synced with a global network of 400 atomic clocks.

We’re all glued to the clock, in one way or another. 

In Episode 4 of the Monitor’s six-part podcast series, “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll look at how the clock became king – and how it shifted Western culture, for better or worse. 

Timekeeping historian Alexis McCrossen traces that history. Some scholars, she says, viewed clock time as “an oppressive force that drained people of their vitality, that monetized time, and that gave those with power much more power.” But timekeepers also allow people to organize their lives and build a society. “If I wanted to live as a hermit, I can live without clocks and watches,” she says. 

‘Easy to vote, hard to cheat.’ Kentucky threads needle on voter access.

For Dawna Ballard, a communications expert who studies time and work, the key is in recognizing when to rely on clocks, and when to go outside clock time to protect the things we value. 

“Time isn’t a clock,” Dr. Ballard says. “Time is an agreement. We decide what time is.”

This is Episode 4 of a six-part series that’s part of the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page.

This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.

Audio Transcript

Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, one of the producers. Today, we’re sharing Episode 4 of our science series, “It’s About Time,” hosted by Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll. And don’t forget to check out our previous episodes if you haven’t listened to them! Let’s get started. 

[Music]

Rebecca Asoulin: Is there anything that you don’t like about clocks?  

Madeline Hanes: Well, it means that mommy and daddy get to say when it’s bedtime. 

[Music]

My name is Madeline.  And my favorite food is blueberry pie with French vanilla ice cream. 

Eoin O’Carroll: It was Week One of the pandemic lockdown, and Madeline’s mom was worried. Madeline, who’s now 10, was getting too obsessed with clocks, and maybe even with time itself. So Madeline’s mom removed the clocks from all of their bedrooms in their New Hampshire cabin. 

Rebecca: The end of in-person school felt like the perfect moment for this grand experiment. 

Madeline: So I kind of liked it because it meant that you could like, do things scheduled with your body instead of what the clock said. Like you could have lunch whenever you want and breakfast whenever you want. And go to bed whenever you want. 

Rebecca: Madeline loved setting her own bedtime. But not being able to check the clock if she woke up at night scared her.  

Madeline: I kept waking up in the night and like not being able to fall asleep, which made it a little bit scary, because at the mountain house where we tried that, it is like extremely dark in the bedroom. 

Rebecca: Madeline is not alone. It turns out we’re all glued to the clock in one way or another.

[Music]

Eoin: This is “It’s About Time.” A series all about…

Rebecca: Time. I’m Rebecca Asoulin. 

Eoin: And I’m Eoin O’Carroll. 

Rebecca: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They’ll help us unravel its mysteries.

Eoin: Because understanding time more deeply can help us make the most of the time we have. 

Rebecca: We’ll return to Madeline later on in this episode to tell you more about how the no-clock experiment went. But, Madeline isn’t the only one obsessed with clocks. Western culture is ruled by the clock. We usually take clock time for granted, but there are other rhythms we can live our lives by. 

Eoin: This episode is about how the clock became king in the West, for better and for worse – and what that’s done for us. The thing with clocks is they can be both liberating and tyrannical.

[Music]

Alexis McCrossen: We in the 21st century, and I think most of the 20th century as well, really distilled time to a kind of essence that it really wasn’t right. Of course, the clock plays an outsized role in our time consciousness. Now, why? Why did clock time take up such a deep hold? 

Rebecca: This is Alexis McCrossen. She’s the author of a book about the history of timekeeping in America called “Marking Modern Times: Clocks, Watches and Other Timekeepers in American Life.”

Eoin: Clock time isn’t the only kind of time, of course. Our bodies have internal clocks. And our planet – as it spins on its axis and circles the sun – tells another kind of time. 

Alexis McCrossen: We still follow natural time. I was just trying to coordinate with a friend about an outdoor drink, and it wasn’t about clock time. It was about like, well, what time is it going to be dark? We have tools that allow us to transcend natural time. I have electric lights in my house. So we still live by natural time so it’s not a switch from one to the other.  

Rebecca: But clock time has become increasingly dominant. Part of it has to do with the usefulness of the clock as both a tool of coordination and a tool of control. 

Eoin: Humans have been building timepieces for a really long time. The first known sundial dates back to the ancient Egyptians. They were the ones who first divided the day into two 12-hour periods.

Rebecca: Some people even had portable sundials like watches! A more than 2,000-year-old portable sundial in the shape of an Italian ham was actually found near Pompeii.

Eoin: Other ancient clocks include water clocks that use a floating bowl with a hole in the bottom, and candle clocks, which burn down at a constant rate.

Rebecca: In the 12th century, the earliest mechanical clocks were invented. 

Eoin: By the middle of the 18th century, large clock towers were the center of cities in Western Europe, Spanish North and South America, and British North America.

Rebecca: But the clocks themselves tell only half the story. In order to have a society run on time, you also need standardization. At one point in the 19th century, North America had 144 official time zones. But Dr. McCrossen says that things weren’t quite as chaotic as you might imagine.

Alexis McCrossen: The thing is, everybody loves to say like, “Oh, and then these trains crashed because of a lack of coordination.” But it’s not really clear if that’s actually what happened.  

It is very difficult, I think, for people to imagine how slow paced and just differently things unfolded in the 19th century. And so it’s very hard for us to imagine that trains wouldn’t be crashing into each other all the time if everybody was following a different standard of time. But they weren’t really running very often.  

Eoin: It seems as though, compared to people living today, people living in the past spent a lot more time waiting around for other people to show up.  

Alexis McCrossen: Yeah, they did. And they were patient about it and completely chill.  

Eoin: The industrial revolution in the 19th century accelerated our clock dependence, thus ending that era of chill. 

Dawna Ballard: And there were a lot of structures around getting people to unlearn this idea that time was fluid and that life was made of events. It was all about getting us to shift our understanding of time from the event to the clock. 

Eoin: This is Dawna Ballard, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dawna Ballard: I study time and work, and how our communication both shapes and is shaped by that experience.

Rebecca: According to Dr. Ballard, the new factories of the 19th century focused on productivity. They needed their workers to arrive at a certain time. And they needed their workers to treat time as money. In fact, farmers were told explicitly to keep non-work life outside of the factory. 

Dawna Ballard: When you come in the doors of the factory. You are a worker and you’re just focused on how efficiently you can do your job.  

Rebecca: Modern workplaces have shifted away from that kind of thinking a little bit. Although if you think about your work, it’s also astounding how similar this all might sound. But we still take the dominance of the clock for granted. It only becomes obvious to us when something goes wrong. 

Dawna Ballard: When I was much younger, there was a Domino’s guarantee that you get your pizza in 30 minutes or less. And they eventually had to stop that because one thing after another, they’d be delayed. And just to meet that 30-minute guarantee, people were getting harmed, physically harmed.

[Dominos ad]

Ad: Only Dominos pizza delivers in 30 minutes or less. None of the rest are always this hot, this fresh.

Rebecca: In this view, clock time is a tyrant – 

Alexis McCrossen: – kind of an oppressive force that drained people of their kind of vitality, that monetized time, and that gave those with power much more power. 

Eoin: That’s Dr. McCrossen again, the timekeeping historian. 

Rebecca: But clock time also underlies how our culture works. It helps us organize, coordinate, and be efficient. Here’s Dawna Ballard again. 

Dawna Ballard: For cultures to function, we need to agree implicitly to some assumptions and then act as if those assumptions are true and real because it gets people to cooperate. So it’s not that it’s all bad. 

Eoin: At the end of the 19th century, as the industrial revolution was winding down, people became more and more connected to those farther and farther away, and flocked to bigger and bigger cities. 

Alexis McCrossen: Clocks become essential for creating possibilities of sort of sociability that you don’t necessarily need if you’re living in a little town where everybody’s following a kind of similar day to day routine.  

Rebecca: They needed an agreed-upon standard of time to be able to coordinate with each other. So at the end of the 19th century, the U.S. and England both began to adopt a standardized system of time. It took a few more decades for the entire world to do the same. This is when we get time zones. 

Eoin: In this view, clocks liberated society.

Alexis McCrossen: Once we were all following the same standard of time, then individuals could obtain some degree of autonomy. They allow me to organize my life in a way that simply just wouldn’t be possible if I wanted to live as a social being. If I wanted to live as a hermit, I can live without clocks and watches altogether. But if I want to connect with other people, then I need to have some coordinating mechanism. And that’s what timekeepers allow.  

[Music]

Rebecca: There’s also a kind of magic to clocks. In Dr. McCrossen’s book on the history of timekeepers in the U.S., she writes about a Wisconsin man who in 1887 donated a tower clock to his local church “in the name of his departed wife”… who went unnamed. The minister’s sermon during the dedication services outlined a set of lessons clocks could teach.

Alexis McCrossen: In the 19th century, clocks were still so magical that preachers and others could endow them with properties like “steady” or “reliable.” 

When I think about our relationship to magical objects today, like the mobile phone, I can’t imagine a minister giving a sermon today about how we ought to model ourselves after the virtues of our mobile phones.  

[Music]

When you see a broken clock, it’s always interesting to see what time it shows and the wonder, you know, why that time, right? Again, because clocks are magical, even though they’re utilitarian, there’s something magical about them, too.

Eoin: So I’m kind of obsessed with mechanical wristwatches. I like ones that were produced in the Soviet Union. You can get them pretty cheaply, and they tend to break all the time. My first one was a diving watch from the 1980s called a Vostok Amphibia. And shortly after I got it, it started making this rattling noise.

[Music]

And so I opened it up to see if I could fix it. And I saw inside a wristwatch for the first time, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was like opening an entirely new world for me. Just the idea that you can take some gears and a spring and be able to use that to tell the time, that strikes me as really amazing.  

[Music]

Noelle Swan: Hi everyone. I’m Noelle Swan, an editor for “It’s About Time.” Like a lot of people, I have always had a somewhat adversarial relationship with time. It seems like I’m always in some kind of race against it. But this podcast has helped me to think outside the clock. We’re able to produce this series thanks to your financial support. If you’d like to listen to more podcasts from us, consider subscribing to the Monitor at csmonitor.com/subscribe.

[Music]

Rebecca: It’s possible to become too obsessed with time. That’s exactly what’s been happening with Madeline. She’s the girl whose mom took away her clock.  

Madeline: I don’t know. I think that sometimes with those things, like they actually happen because you stressed they’re going to happen, which is really annoying because you feel like it should be the other way around.  

Rebecca: I agree. I totally agree. 

Madeline: The reason why I want the clock is so when I wake up in the night, I know what time it is. 

Eoin: Why do you want to know what time it is in the middle of the night when you wake up?  

Madeline: Because sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up, I know what the general time frame is, but since it’s so dark at the mountain house, I don’t really know.

Stephanie Hanes: But why in general would you want to know what time it is?  

Rebecca: That’s Stephanie Hanes, Madeline’s mother. She’s a reporter, and a regular contributor to the Monitor. 

Madeline: Cause I go to bed better if I know that there’s only a few hours till morning.  So if I can’t go to bed I won’t be losing way, way, way too much sleep. 

Stephanie Hanes: So you mean like if you wake up in the middle of the night then…

Madeline: I hope it’s not the middle night? Yeah.  

Rebecca: For Madeline, waking up at midnight and seeing the clock… 

Madeline: It just helps me get like, panicked. 

Rebecca: If Madeline sees it’s close to morning, she feels better and can fall asleep much more easily. Knowing it’s midnight is scary because that means if she can’t go back to sleep then she might lose hours and hours of sleep. when that happens – 

Madeline: I would just get mamma. 

Rebecca: And then that helps you go back to sleep? 

Madeline: Mmhm. Because I like hugging mama. 

Rebecca: This isn’t an uncommon problem. When Dr. McCrossen’s daughter was around Madeline’s age, she actually also had to take her daughter’s clock out of her room – 

Alexis McCrossen: – because she would wake up in the middle of the night and sort of obsessively check it.

Eoin: Dr. McCrossen’s daughter is now a teenager. She eventually stopped worrying about the clock. For her mom, this anxiety was relatable. She didn’t worry about the clock at night, but she experienced something similar when she was younger. 

Alexis McCrossen: I was a very hard-charging young adult. Like I really felt that I needed to learn a lot. And I didn’t feel that there was enough time in the day to do everything I needed to do. And it was really, really stressful. 

Rebecca: You can become so glued to the clock that you can’t have meaningful time because you’re so focused on measuring it. 

Alexis McCrossen: The amount of things that you can cram into a day, it’s unbelievable. And the clock is a tool that helps you pull that off. And yet it can also make you kind of unhappy. 

Eoin: That tension comes from being caught in between two worlds that don’t mix well, according to the time and communication expert Dr. Ballard. Some cultures are monochronic and other cultures are polychronic. It’s not so much a binary as it is a spectrum.

Rebecca: According to Dr. Ballard, the U.S. is primarily a monochronic culture. Monochronic cultures value doing things in order, one at a time. Like workers in a factory assembly line. But –

Dawna Ballard: Polychronicity is the idea of doing many things at one time. And it’s not new. It’s the way that homes have always been run. The challenge we face is that Western post-industrial culture is known as a monochronic culture.

Rebecca: And when monochronic culture merges with polychronic behavior – 

Dawna Ballard: – what you get is people like me, who experience a lot of anxiety around how to be efficient and get things accomplished in a very linear fast pace, while trying to manage the fact that life is unfolding. 

Eoin: In monochronic cultures, we often experience a disconnect between these two ways of thinking. It can really stress us out sometimes. 

Dawna Ballard: I think most people have been in the situation where you’re in the middle of something important with someone who matters, with an event that matters. How do we manage that? How do we make decisions about what matters?  

Rebecca: We’ve been talking for a long time about time, and you spend a lot of time thinking about time. Why do you think most people don’t spend that much time thinking about it? 

Dawna Ballard: Because it’s part of this basic underlying level of culture. If you were to think of an iceberg, a tip of an iceberg all the way down through the bottom of the ocean and there at the very bottom is where our fundamental assumptions about time are. If we were to talk about it all the time, people might decide, “I want to do something differently.”

[Music]

Rebecca: Our relationship to time and clocks is changeable. 

Dawna Ballard: Cultures always change. And there are times when we culturally come together and we see we have built our society on some assumptions that just don’t work for us anymore. Let’s think about some other ways to structure our lives. 

Eoin: Of course, you’ll also find people – and sometimes even businesses – that operate outside clock time. For example, there’s this local grocery store that Dr. Ballard used to buy eggs from –

Dawna Ballard: – it was like a super sustainable, tiny little store here in Austin. 

Rebecca: The first time Dr. Ballard cracked open one of the eggs –

Dawna Ballard: – I said, you know, there might be something wrong with these eggs because the yolks are almost orange. And I called them and they’re like, No, that’s the way eggs actually look.

Eoin: Her family loved the eggs, and they bought them all the time. But one day, the store ran out.

Dawna Ballard: And they said, “Well, the chickens are molting, so there’s no eggs until they’re done. When those chickens are done molting, you’ll get eggs again. And I don’t know when.” And there was no time they could give me. 

Eoin: The grocery store went out of business — perhaps a sign that modern life isn’t hospitable for this kind of natural temporality. Or to chickens generally.

Rebecca: But in many ways, clock time seems to be losing some of its power. 

Eoin: Especially during the pandemic, when every day feels like a Wednesday. 

Rebecca: Why Wednesday?

Eoin: Well, I don’t like Wednesdays.

Dawna Ballard: The thing about the early days of the pandemic is that even though we weren’t aware, we probably couldn’t articulate this, but we all got to see true time in action. I say time isn’t a clock. Time is an agreement – which is, you know, socially constructed. We decide what time is. And we got to see how we decide what time is and what matters when we canceled really important events. 

We canceled things that prior to a global pandemic would be heresy to cancel. I mean, there were weddings canceled. Big conferences, South by Southwest here in Austin was canceled. And people started to understand that we are actually the ones that create time. There wasn’t this mandate that came down from the heavens that said, Here’s time. We were the ones creating it and we can make smart decisions that protect things that we value. And I just hope that that continues. 

Rebecca: Dr. McCrossen agrees the pandemic made clock time less important. For example, if we were going to a concert pre-pandemic –

Alexis McCrossen: – and it’s going to begin at 8. We don’t have a lot of room to maneuver, so we’ve got to eat. We’ve got to get out of the house. We’ve got to plan for traffic. Right. There’s not a lot of room for variance. But if we’re just going to, in the age of COVID, tune in to a prerecorded concert whenever we feel like it, then we’ve got a lot more room to wiggle, right? 

Rebecca: Dr. Ballard says that that flexibility can lead to more compassion.

Dawna Ballard: People were being thoughtful about the fact that we don’t control the events around us. In a normal time, individual people have major catastrophes as well, that reshape their life in the way that we were all collectively having our lives reshaped by this event. And so my hope is that long after the pandemic, people understand that in a way that I feel like culturally we haven’t. We’ve not respected the event. 

Eoin: To Dr. Ballard, ascribing less power to the clock can enhance our social connections. To Dr. McCrossen, clocks make it easier to connect with people, especially those who are physically distant. 

Rebecca: For example, Dr. McCrossen knows her mother’s routines on the clock – 

Alexis McCrossen: And therefore I know when’s a good time to give her a call. I mean, who would jettison clock time and thereby miss every opportunity to have a conversation with their mother?  

The clock opens up a world of possibilities, whether it’s for something mundane or something once in a lifetime. It’s a coordinating mechanism, right? Once it became evident that that’s what you could do with a clock. Who wouldn’t want to?  

Rebecca: These days, clocks are integrated into almost every aspect of our lives. Take a moment and think about all the clocks you have in your house. 

Did you think about your phone and computer? What about your oven? Or your microwave?

Eoin: Or your car, your TV, your printer, your modem…basically any electronic device that connects to the internet has a clock embedded.  

Rebecca: For Madeline – the 10-year-old with the love of clocks – her clock is back in her bedroom for now. The result of her family moving to a new house.

Eoin: So Madeleine, how do you like your new house?  

Madeline: I really like it, yeah. But I think there are too many boxes. 

Rebecca: Madeline and her sister Lydia unpacked their room themselves, and Madeline put the clock back in the bedroom. 

Madeline: Me and Lydia unpacked our clock and my momma wouldn’t take it away, which is good because I like having it.  

Eoin: They arrived at a compromise. The clock’s backlight stays off, and its face is turned toward Madeline’s bed, because her sister prefers to live life clock free. 

Rebecca: Madeline hasn’t totally broken the habit of wanting to check the clock at night. But with its light off, she can’t check it as easily. Experimenting with life without it, has left her a little bit more relaxed during the day. She listens to her body to know when to go to bed, when to wake up, when to eat meals. 

Eoin: It’s really tempting, but we probably can’t just throw out all our clocks. Clocks can connect us to others and help us accomplish stuff.

Madeline: You could never do it on a school day or something because you wouldn’t know when you were waking up and you would never know when you were falling asleep.

Rebecca: But we need unstructured time. And to do that, we need to reflect on our lives and figure out where and when we can make those changes. We can’t be so obsessed with measuring time that we don’t experience it.

Eoin: For Madeline’s mother, Stephanie, the lockdown and the clock experiment changed her relationship with time. Stephanie writes for the Monitor. And she wrote an essay about time during the pandemic. She writes in the essay: 

Stephanie Hanes: ”I have also noticed that we are relearning life as a family. Days feel longer. The unimportant and inconsequential have retreated silently into the sidelines of our existence. Wants are reprioritized.

My old nemesis, time, quietly urges me to do those things it once commanded me not to do – of course I have time to call my parents and grandparents, to read that extra story. Life does go on without school, without travel, without that tightly gripped illusion of control over the future.

I took the clock out of our room, as well. I do not miss it.”

[Music]

Rebecca: Thanks for listening! We hope this episode got you thinking about when to rely on clocks – and when to ditch ‘em. 

Eoin: If you liked this episode, please subscribe to “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a rating or comment. And share this series with your friends, family, and coworkers! We’re at csmonitor.com/time. 

Rebecca: This series is hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host is Eoin O’Carroll. Produced with Jessica Mendoza and Samantha Laine Perfas. Additional editing by Noelle Swan and Clay Collins. Additional production support from Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Noel Flatt, and Morgan Anderson. 

This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.

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[Music]

Madeline: At the mountain house I don’t know when I was waking up. One day I was up at like, six – it was like, when I got upstairs I was like, Oh, it’s like six thirty. And then one time I was like, What? It’s already eight.  

Rebecca: Do you like waking up early?  

Madeline: I like waking up early once in a while, but I probably wouldn’t do it all the time because, I mean, I like staying up late. I’m never tired. I’m just worn out.  

Rebecca: So my last question is, can you tell me what the word “time” means to you? Like, when you think of the word time? What do you think?  

Madeline: Well, how I describe it is what point in the day or night it is, or what point in history it is. Like what point of something. Also, another thing I think about is the plant thyme.

Rebecca: Oh, the Earth?  

Stephanie Hanes: Like rosemary. 

Rebecca: Oh, the herb – the plant thyme! 

[End]

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