The world runs on time

Published

How the railways synchronised our lives

In June 1841, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed the Great Western Railway (GWR) line from London to Bridgewater, a distance of 156 miles. For the benefit of passengers travelling on this route, the timetable carried an essential note:

LONDON TIME is kept at all the Stations on the Railway, which is about 4 minutes earlier than READING time; 5½ minutes before STEVENTON time; 7½ minutes before CIRENCESTER time; 8 minutes before CHIPPENHAM time; 11 minutes before BATH and BRISTOL time; and 14 minutes before BRIDGEWATER time.
— Timetable of the Great Western Railway (GWR) line from London to Bridgewater, 1841

Confusing, clearly—but any traveller who failed to take note of this information risked missing the train. Until the mid-19th century, towns relied on local time, set by the sun, and the time in London was ahead of that of any town further west—hence the need to spell out the differences.

Time in a new era of travel

Large 5-needle Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph. Inv no: 1963-215 More information

Large 5-needle Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph. Inv no: 1963-215
More information

Until the railway came, it didn't matter that places at different longitudes kept their local time by the sun. There was no means of transport—or communication over distance—faster than a horse. A few minutes one way or the other between Bristol and Bridgewater was no problem.

A railway network, however, whose trains could cross the country within a day, needed standard time to avoid collisions and ensure that passengers departed on schedule. The electric telegraph, developed in parallel with the railways by the British entrepreneur William Fothergill Cooke, would eventually provide the solution.

Cooke had seen a demonstration of an early telegraph in Germany in 1836. The following year he met Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London. The two formed a business partnership, developing a system in which electromagnetic signals moved a needle on a dial to point to letters of the alphabet.

In the US, meanwhile, Samuel Morse and his associate Alfred Vail developed a simpler transmitter, the Morse key, which encoded the letters of the alphabet using short and long electrical pulses. His receiver recorded the message on paper as a series of dots and dashes—Morse code.

Information travels faster than the railway

Cooke and Wheatstone were certain that the railway companies would be able to make use of their new invention. Their first commission was to install an electric telegraph alongside the London and Blackwall Railway. This line, opened in 1840, originally used stationary engines that hauled carriages by cable, connecting the City of London with the docks on the north side of the Thames.

5-needle train signalling instrument probably made by W T Henley's Telegraph Works Company for the Electric Telegraph Company, England, 1840. Inv no: 1912-3 More information

5-needle train signalling instrument probably made by W T Henley's Telegraph Works Company for the Electric Telegraph Company, England, 1840. Inv no: 1912-3
More information

The design called for some form of remote control, as the trains themselves had no means of starting or stopping. The answer was to install telegraph instruments at each station, sending information to the engineers who started and stopped the winding engines as needed.

Telegraphy made it possible for information to travel much faster than the fastest means of transport—the railway. The telegraph became essential to the efficient management of newly emerging railways in Britain, but it quickly expanded to more general communication.

Cables catch a killer

Blank Post Office telegram, circa 1970.

Blank Post Office telegram, circa 1970.

From the 1840s until the second half of the 20th century, the telegraph network was a vital tool for sending news, personal messages and ultimately business information. Such a message, variously known as a telegram, a cable or a wire, would be delivered by phone or by messenger in a special yellow envelope.

The technology entered the public consciousness through events such as the arrest of John Tawell on 3 January 1845. Tawell had murdered his mistress in Slough, and when his crime was discovered he headed for London by train. Local police telegraphed his description to London, where the police were able to meet the train and arrest him.

Tawell was subsequently convicted and hanged, and the telegraph wires gained further notoriety as "the cords that hanged John Tawell".

Standardising time

The introduction of standard time throughout the country was perhaps the most significant social consequence of the invention of the electric telegraph.

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, provided the standard for 'London time', counting noon from the sun's zenith over the 0° meridian. In 1852, the timekeepers at Greenwich introduced equipment that transmitted accurate time signals throughout the country over the electric telegraph network.

By 1855 nearly all public authorities, such as churches and town halls, set their clocks to 'railway time', displayed on station clocks by station masters who adjusted them according to the signals from Greenwich.

In October 1884, the International Telegraph Union held the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC. Among other principles, the conference agreed to divide the world into 24 hourly time zones based on the Greenwich meridian. Over the ensuing decades most countries in the world gradually adopted the principle.

Now people are no longer tuned to the rhythms of the sun and the seasons, but forced to keep pace with the hands of a clock.


 

Information Age