The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

How the Railroad Eclipsed the Sun

With daylight saving time ending this weekend, I was reminded again of the railroad. Anymore, we spring forward and fall back with only slight disruptions. Inconveniences are usually more humorous than irritating. The nation endures perhaps a day or two of collective jet lag, but otherwise the time change is a normal part of life. Normal it is, but natural it is not. We forget that.

Before standard time we had something called “solar time.” Each town kept time locally by tracking the sun’s zenith—noon. This was local time. It wasn’t until railroads began traversing east and west, collapsing them 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. Traveling east, always a few minutes late. Timekeeping and arrival times were simply unreliable. Arriving at every station, train conductors were continually “springing forward” or “falling back” a few minutes to adjust 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 synchronization possible. 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—especially then with Edison’s light bulb—they began to account for seasonal changes in a new way. But Daylight Saving Time wasn’t all the popular. The U.S. government implemented it during World War I, but abolished it soon after. It was adopted again during WWII, after which numerous states kept it going. But it wasn’t until 1966 that DST was federally mandated in the Uniform Time Act.

Railroads and time zones illuminate how technology tends to develop and then require new methods of synchronizing human activity. Train conductors needed a standard time imprinted on the towns where they stopped. This standard helped them coordinate with the locals. The telegraph fixed what the railroad had broken: people’s relationships with time and with each other.

Whether we use a calendar, a clock, or a geolocation app, technology continues to coordinate more and 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.

Over time, we can lose perspective. Before we know it, technology is intervening everywhere, even interfering, coming between people. Yes, Facebook, we’re looking at you. At some point, our interactions are hardly fit to be called “relationships.”

From railroads and daylight saving time to corporate calendars and Google Maps, we’ve created a lot of technology to organize, 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.

Daylight savings time is a good reminder: The railroad changed our relationship to the sun. It changed our default settings for things like time zones and work hours. It not only made travel faster, but it also changed how we relate to one another. That these norms are new is worth remembering. After all, at the end of the day, the sun still goes down like our world revolves around it.