Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

History revisited – Belshaw’s brief history of measuring time

“I wonder how many people know that  ….. the tyranny of time we all suffer from is very recent?” Jim Belshaw

The old courthouse clock is a familiar sight (and sound) in Armidale. I wonder how many people know that that clock, your wrist watch or, indeed, the tyranny of time we all suffer from is very recent?

For most of our ancestors until quite recently, the day was measured by the sun. The earliest clock we know, a variant of the sundial, first appeared in Egypt around 3,500 BC.

This doesn’t mean that earlier people didn’t have an acute sense of time. They did. The Australian Aborigines were acutely aware of time in a general sense, a travel or hunting sense, but simply didn’t need time divided into units. There was no point.

Measurable or fixed time emerged because certain activities demanded it. Initially, people really worked from dawn to dusk. However, as the concept of a working day or shift began to emerge, as the idea of the appointment emerged, clocks were required.

Now we come back to the court house clock. The first spring driven clock emerged in Europe in the 15th century, laying the basis for the development of the watch. But in colonial Australia as late as the middle of the nineteenth century clocks were uncommon, watches rarer. Time was announced by signal gun, whistles or limited number of town clocks.

Time was not as we know it now, however. Because time was set by the sun, each place had its own time. Newcastle time was two minutes later than Sydney time.

This didn’t matter when transport was slow, but the railways changed things for the railways needed timetables; it was simply a dratted nuisance to have to express a timetable in multiple times. Each colony therefore standardised time, creating an artificial standard based on capital city time that broke the nexus with time measured by movements of the sun.

Times were still different between the colonies. An Armidale traveller returning home by rail from a trip to Queensland had to wind back his watch by a bit under eight minutes as he walked from the Queensland to NSW platforms at Wallangarra. At Albury, the adjustment from Victorian to NSW time was around twenty five minutes.

These adjustments are relatively small. At Broken Hill, the locals had three times; South Australian time set by the rail line from Adelaide; Post and Telegraph time set by head office in Sydney; and local standard time. All very confusing.

It wasn’t until 1895 that the eastern colonies combined to adopt the new Eastern Standard time. This helped standardisation, but it actually meant that local time no longer reflected the sun time on which the body clock worked.

Even by 1895, modern attitudes to time measurement and punctuality had yet to achieve that rigidity that we now know. But it was coming.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 8 October 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

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