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Words To That Effect Episode 21: The Invention of Time
Time, as we understand it today, was only really invented in the Victorian era.
We take it for granted today that our phones and watches and other devices are accurate to the second. That time zones are clear and fixed – when it’s 3pm in Dublin, it’s also 3pm in London, and 4pm in Paris or 10am in New York. We don’t think twice about the fact that a train can be scheduled to leave at precisely 11.04 and, when it arrives, passengers will be clear as what time it is at their destination. We know that time travel is a trope of science fiction, but not a scientific reality. We are aware that the sun is a star that’s burning through a finite store of hydrogen and will, eventually, burn out and die.
But all of these ideas about time – things we just don’t think very much about today – were not fixed at all in the nineteenth century.
It was in the Victorian era, particularly from the middle of the 19th century onward, that time moved to the forefront of public consciousness. The concept of time was pondered over, debated, and discussed by everyone, from factory workers to scientists, tradespeople to academics. Time found its way into novels by the authors of the age – from the renowned and to the long-forgotten. It was investigated and interrogated across scientific disciplines: by geographers, geologists, naturalists, and many others. It caused fierce debate among those charged with regulating and organising trade, transport, and communications.
All across the world, time was a hugely important facet of life in the Victorian era.