The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

How the Railroad Eclipsed the Sun

With daylight saving time just beginning, I was reminded again of the railroad. Anymore, we spring forward and fall back with only the slightest disruption. Any inconvenience it creates is usually more humorous than anything. We endure perhaps a few days of collective jet lag, but otherwise the time change is a normal part of life. But while the transition may be normal, it is not natural. It’s easy to forget that.

Daylight standard time, and its counterpart, time zones, replaced “solar time.” Before standard time, each town accounted for time locally by acknowledging the sun’s zenith—noon. This was local time. It wasn’t until railroads began traversing east and west, collapsing the two in on each other, that people began to need a standard time system.

As train travel and speed increased, the elapsed travel time didn’t match the local arrival time. A train that leaves Westchester traveling west at 40 miles per hour always arrives a few minutes early. Travelling east, always a few minutes late. It was simply unreliable. At every station, conductors were continually “springing forward” or “falling back” a few minutes to assimilate to local time. As the railroad expanded, so did the number of “local times,” until there were about 100. Keeping track of them all was a scheduling and mathematical nightmare. Something had to change.

So the railway companies invented time zones. The telegraph made this synchronicity possible. A technological solution to a technological problem. In the process, solar time became obsolete. The railroad had eclipsed the sun in synchronizing human activity.

Standard time and time zones solved a lot of problems, but they created new ones—hence daylight savings. Since people no longer coordinated their activities by the sun, they began to account for seasonal changes in a new way.

The telegraph and daylight savings both illuminate the ways that technology creates new problems and how, increasingly, we look for more technology to solve those problems.

But just as much, railroads illuminate how technology intervenes and requires new ways of synchronizing human interactions (otherwise called “relationships”). More and more, we use technology to coordinate these. However, as our technologies creates new problems, we respond with ever more technological solutions. Round and round it goes. Over time, we can lose perspective. Before we know it, technology is intervening everywhere, even interfering, coming between people. At some point, they’re hardly fit to be called relationships.

Whether we use a calendar, a clock, a geolocation app, or the new Highlight app, technology continues to coordinate more of our lives and our interactions. It standardizes when, where, and how we meet with others. Time, place, and process all fall within technology’s purview, and it begins to change them. And us.

For me, my whole schedule at work is dictated by my Microsoft Outlook calendar. This is easy because it’s integrated with everyone else’s calendar at the company. It coordinates us all.

From railroads and daylight saving time to Outlook and Highlight, we’ve created a lot of technology to organize and standardize and synchronize human relationships. We’ve built digital fences to be good neighbors. Daylight saving time is a normal part of modern life—every spring, every fall, it happens with relative ease and a few funny failures. These hiccups are normal, but they are not natural.

It’s worth taking the time to reflect on how the railroad has changed our relationship to the sun. But it’s also worthwhile to recognize how it has changed the structures of our environment—like time zones and daily work schedules. Most of all, it’s important to realize that the railroad not only made travel faster but also changed how we relate to one another. After all, at the end of the day, the sun still goes down like our world revolves around it.