February 1, 2012

Blame Thoreau’s Walden for this blog.  Since I’d already read this month’s Book of the Month, I mistakenly assumed I could coast on that long-ago reading.  But I did feel I ought to at least scan it.  That didn’t last long for I soon discovered that my earlier reading of this timeless classic was so superficial that I might as well never have read it at all.

My re-reading jolting to a halt in Chapter 4, titled “Sounds.”  What brought my train of thought to a dead standstill was Thoreau’s masterful exegesis on trains.  I had long been aware of the revolutionary aspects of the Industrial Age, especially that of steam.  Few, in the 1820s and 1830s realized that the world they knew had reached its terminus.  Stewart H. Holbrook, in his landmark book, The Story of American Railroads (New York: Crown publishers, 1947) notes that “The coming of the railroad, and the rapidity with which it expanded during the 1830s found a public wholly unprepared, and pretty much confused.  What, thoughtful men now asked one another, was a railroad?  There had been little thinking on the subject, hence there was no philosophy of railroads.  The canal builders and operators, of course, simply damned the new method of transportation on every count they could think of.  It was dangerous.  It wouldn’t work.  It was merely a clever method by which smart scoundrels could steal your money more or less legally by selling you worthless stock . . . .  The railroad was also against nature.  And, finally, it was against God; and many a preacher found friends among canal and stagecoach men when he opened up full blast on this new curse that a tireless Satan had promulgated to try all Christian men” (25).

Up until the advent of steam, clocks were merely a luxury, rich people’s toys.  For the average person, sundials worked fine.  When the fastest speed known to men was a galloping horse or a sailing ship, each subject to disruption on primitive roads or stormy or becalming seas, exact times of arrival and departure were merely guesstimates.  But now along comes steam-propelled trains and ships.  How could they even function without relatively exact time?  Time zones were nonexistent back then, for who needed them?

Now, however, each time another station was added to a railroad route, correct time became more and more significant.  With that reality in mind, plant yourself in Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond during the years 1845-7.  Time-travel back to that heretofore agricultural age in which the fastest travel was in stagecoaches, with nothing except leather straps to absorb the jolting over often terrible roads.  So, visiting with Thoreau, you hear a new sound; you view a new force, a staggering reality: for the first time in recorded history, the pace of life speeds up.  A new force shatters the serenity of thousands of years.  Looking over Thoreau’s shoulder, so to speak, you follow as his quill dips in and out of the inkwell and he chronicles his reactions on the pages of his journal.

Let’s see what his reactions were: Earlier in this chapter, he noted that he was able to enjoy undisturbed solitude and stillness . . . with the occasional noise of “some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway.”  He was barely conscious of the passing of time: “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that, ‘for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.’” Walden (New York: The Heritage Press, 1939, 118).

But then comes the Fitchburg Railroad!  “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. . . .  Here comes your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen!  Nor is any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay.  And here’s your pay for them! Screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. . . .  All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city.  Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up comes the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.”

“When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam-cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this  cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth has got a race now worthy to inhabit it.  If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!  If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands, and be their escort.

“I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular.  Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear.  The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed.  Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off.  If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early!  If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snowshoes, and with the giant plough plough a furrow from the mountains to the sea-board, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed.  All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber.  Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber.  If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!

“Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants; this moment stopping at some brilliant station-house in town or city, where a social crowd is gathered, the next in the Dismal Swamp, scaring the owl and fox.  The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day.  They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.  Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?  Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place.  I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.  To do things “railroad fashion” is now the by-word; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.  There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case.  We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.  (Let that be the name of your engine.)  Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man’s business, and the children go to school on the other track.  We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell.  The air is full of invisible bolts.  Every path but your own is the path of fate.  Keep on your own track, then.” (121-124)

* * * * *

However, even though Thoreau’s townspeople in Concord set their clocks by the train’s whistle that didn’t mean that the American people now lived by the same time.  Far from it!

Let’s return to Holbrook.  Decades after Thoreau’s Walden Pond days, the situation had not yet been fully resolved: “At first no timetables were issued the traveling public.  Only operating crews and station agents were given the crude, handwritten sheets which, incidentally, were more hopeful than accurate. . . .  “

“The railroads naturally ran all of their trains by the local time of the road’s terminal.  In the case of the New York Central this meant that its trains, leaving Manhattan by terminal time, arrived at Buffalo fifteen minutes late by Buffalo time.  In the latitude of Chicago, it was known, the passage of the sun across the meridian varied one minute for every thirteen miles, or one second for every 1,140 feet of longitude.  Railroads had long since ceased to think in terms of hours only, but were holding their schedules to minutes.  The Pennsylvania used Philadelphia time in the East, which was 5 minutes slower than New York City’s, but 5 minutes faster than Baltimore time.  The B&O system was very complicated.  It used Baltimore time for trains running out of Baltimore, Columbus time for trains in Ohio, Vincennes time for trains west of Cincinnati.  When solar time was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11;50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:41 in St. Paul, 11:27 in Omaha.  There were at least 27 local times in Michigan, 38 in Wisconsin, 27 in Illinois, and 23 in Indiana.  A careful traveler, going from Eastport, Maine, to San Francisco, changed his stem-winder 20 times during the trip.

“In Kansas City, and to a certain extent in Boston, each of the leading jewelers set up his own standard time and defended it with the same emotional intensity generally expended only in defending a religion.  Each jeweler’s customers became partisans, loud and insistent.  The situation in Kansas City became so bad, what with everybody missing trains and one thing and another, that the town at last adopted a time-ball system.

“In every city and town the multiplicity of time standards confused and bewildered passengers, shippers, and railway employees.  Only too often errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision.” (Holbrook, 355).


After decades of wrangling, resolution was finally reached.  Authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fateful date chosen was November 18, 1883 (only 123 years ago); the time: noon.  The clocks used by all the railroads in the nation were reset to fit the four time standards (zones) that had finally been agreed upon.  Holbrook takes us to the exact moment when time as we know it began:

“The change, welcome though it was, put something of a strain on all railroads, for the adjustment called for extreme care and watchfulness lest disasters due to collisions occur.  Specific orders were issued on every division.  Train crews were instructed as to what change to make in their watches.  A typical order was that issued by Superintendent Rowland of the Louisville & Nashville. “Should any train or engine be caught between telegraph stations at 10 A.M. on Sunday, November 18, “it read, “they will stop at precisely 10 o’clock wherever they may be and stand still and securely protect their trains or engines in the rear and front until 10:18 A.M., and then turn their watches back to precisely 10 o’clock, new standard time, and then proceed on card rights or on any special orders they may have in their possession for the movement of their trains to the first telegraph station where they will stop and compare watches with the clock and be sure they    have the correct new standard time before leaving . . .”

“On the 18th, as the minutes ticked away in the morning, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune found an unusual blanket of solemnity in the West Side Union Depot, which served the Pennsylvania, Burlington, Pan Handle, and Alton railroads.  He sensed that all present felt something of an extraordinary nature was about to happen.  At quarter to noon, Chicago local time, conductors, engineers and other employees began dropping into the lobby, each with timepiece in hand.  Depot Master Cropsey had his fine chronometer under a strong magnifying glass to mark the exact second.  When the big clock on the wall, by which the running of the trains in the depot was regulated, stood fair at noon, it was stopped.  Telegraph instruments were then connected with the pendulum of the clock in the observatory at Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  Each movement of the pendulum was faithfully repeated by the ticking instruments, and at exactly 9 minutes 32 seconds after 12, Chicago time, “the movement of the pendulum stopped, indicating that it was 12 noon by 90th meridian time.  The feat was successfully accomplished, and a general murmur of satisfaction ran through the room.” (Holbrook, 3589).

The long reign of the sundial now came to an end.  Time—as we know it—began that day.

Published in: on February 1, 2012 at 10:54 am  Comments (2)  
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