"Clocks Tell Lies": A New Book From Today's Universe, Writer Scott Alan Johnston

“Clocks Tell Lies”: A New Book From Today’s Universe, Writer Scott Alan Johnston

Scott Alan Johnston (that’s me!) joined the Universe Today team just over a year ago. I’ve since written over 50 space short stories for the website – time flies when you’re having fun! But when I’m not writing articles here on Universe Today, I’m a science historian and recently published a new book on the history of timekeeping.

Have you ever wondered why we tell the time the way we do? Well, history buffs, come take a look:

For most of human history, time was a local affair. On foot or on horseback, you couldn’t get from town to town fast enough to worry about whether noon was a few minutes earlier or later. But everything changed in the middle of the 19th century, with the invention of the train. Suddenly, for the passengers of these steam and coal tanks, jet lag has become a matter of life or death.

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Depiction of a railroad collision near Suffolk, Virginia, in 1837, caused by a lack of observance of the railroad timetable. Source: Southworth Allen Howland, Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States1840.

The invention of the telegraph exasperated things even further – suddenly information could travel around the world at unimaginable speed. Clearly, local time was no longer going to suffice: a global timekeeping standard was going to be needed. But how to get everyone to agree on what time it is? It’s there that Clocks tell lies resumes the story: the quest for a shared universal time.

As railway engineers like Sandford Fleming and William Allen sought to establish time zones to keep their transcontinental trains running smoothly, astronomers around the world were engaged in their own timing challenges. The transit of Venus—a rare twice-a-century event—was to occur in 1874, and again in 1882. Multinational expeditions to observe transits would be futile without a way to compare the timing of sightings. Meanwhile, meteorologist Cleveland Abbe faced a similar challenge as he attempted to study the aurora borealis with a team of volunteers – each observer used their own local time, making it impossible to draw useful comparative conclusions. from various observations. A new solution was clearly needed.

This photographic sequence shows the transit of Venus in 1874, captured by the French astronomer Jules Janssen, who went on to play a major role in the world debates on horology of the time. It is also the oldest sequence with an IMDb (Wikimedia Commons) page.

It was in this context that astronomers and engineers (and politicians) from around the world came together to decide how best to manage the planet’s timing. They met in Washington DC at the 1884 International Meridian Conference, a diplomatic conclave whose messy conflicts form the book’s climax. Here, nations battled for the right to host the Prime Meridian, while astronomers battled engineers over whether to adopt a single world time or twenty-four separate time zones. The conference was divisive and inconclusive, leaving more questions than answers: we still feel the results of those deliberations today.

If there is a moral to Clocks tell lies, is that new things don’t repel old things – they co-exist. Local timing practices continued to survive alongside Universal Time. Perhaps more importantly, nothing is universal without universal access – just because universal time was “invented” doesn’t mean everyone suddenly had the means to use it. This is also an important lesson for the modern world. Think, for example, of the Internet: 37% of the world’s population has never used! Imagine the implications – all this knowledge at your fingertips! But inequality keeps it out of reach of those who stand to benefit most. The tools and technologies we invent are only useful and valuable if they are shared and made accessible to those who need them.

So here is. Clocks tell lies is available in places where they sell books (like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound). And hey – as an author, I recognize that the book may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s scholarly (you know, with footnotes and stuff), so light reading isn’t. But if you want to delve deeper into the subject, you won’t regret trying it.

Other things you will find in Clocks tell lies:

  • How an eccentric astronomer tried to establish the Great Pyramid of Giza as the world’s prime meridian.
  • An eight-month standoff in which Britain’s Astronomer Royal held Greenwich Mean Time hostage to the Admiralty and Navy in a bid to force an increase in the observatory’s budget.
  • The story of Ruth and Maria Belville, entrepreneurs who sold time door to door in London for almost a century.
  • An 1893 court case in which a pub won the right to serve drinks in local solar time, rather than standard time, pushing their last night call some 30 minutes later than the competition.
Scott Alan Johnston, 2022.

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