The clock at Grand Central Station. Francesco Ungaro. Pexels.

on track

This is the second chapter in a series of pieces about our modern relationship with time and the future. Titled Hourglass, It’s an exploration into how our abstract view of time has changed in modernity, how it has met (or has yet to meet) the needs of the present, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

First Chapter / Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Today, we’ll talk about the machine that reinvented time — and how it shaped the world around us.

You’re sitting at a train station. You anxiously check your watch; the train is due to arrive in a few minutes, but there’s no sign of it yet. The wind whips by, rustling your clothes as you gather your things. You can feel the subtle rumble of the earth as the ground vibrates through the soles of your shoes. In the distance, the pitch of the tracks shifts from a low tremor to a high screech, heralding the arrival of the mechanical beast. The dazzling lights reflect off of the station walls, dashing oblong shadows onto the walls behind you.

As the train comes to a halt, passengers rush onward, jostling their way into the busy train doors. You might take a moment to admire the build of this technological marvel, observing the iron studs that hold the windows in place and the metal doors that slide open and closed. But unless you’re very observant, you might fail to recognize that you’re staring at a machine that reinvented time.

The Railroad to Tomorrow

When the steam locomotive was introduced in the early 19th century, it transformed transportation as we know it¹. Prior to the locomotive, the fastest mode of transport was by boat, and if you were unfortunate enough to require land travel (or god forbid needed to travel upstream), by horse. Seeing as horses are sentient creatures that are limited in speed to how fast their legs can take them, the steam locomotive (and variants of steam engines such as the steamboat) were marked improvements over the status quo. On the heels of these inventions came innovations in modern communication such as the telegraph, which were invented by Sir William Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone for use on the British railway system¹. The telegraph revolutionized communication just at the time when the railroad was changing the reliability and speed at which people and goods could be transported. Needless to say, it was an exciting time.

Railroads stretched between modern cities of developed nations, redefining the travel of people and goods. Soon, cities that were once separated by days of travel could be reached within hours, leading to a massive increase in the efficiency of commerce. But the introduction of this brand new technology posed a technical challenge of a different sort.

At the time, most major cities set their time by whenever they thought “high noon” was. Some disgruntled city official would walk outside, look at the sun and say “that’s about right” and go back and fiddle with the city clock for a bit. Then all the local citizens would adjust their clocks accordingly to fit the town schedule². Ever wonder why old cities often had a central clock hoisted high above the rest of the buildings? Yeah, that’s so that people weren’t always confused about what time it was. New York might be a few minutes ahead, Boston a few minutes behind. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was what time your city felt like it was, so then you could meet up with so-and-so at noon, and so on and so forth. Transportation was more lax as well; horses didn’t really care if it was 11:59 or 12:15, and most people didn’t really care either.

Unfortunately, trains don’t work that way.

The very fact that trains need to adhere to strict arrival and departure schedules forced cities to synchronize their clocks. It was no good if Boston was always 15 minutes late, because everyone would miss their trains headed to New York! So time needed to be standardized, and in 1883, most rail systems standardized their time zones across major metropolitan cities in the US². Once major cities caught on, it didn’t take a long time for smaller townships and counties to catch on, too. This is where the modern concept of planning as we know it today — accurate, premeditated, and above all, precise — was born. Not out of paper, but out of steam and iron. Today we know this modern idea of planning by a grosser name: scheduling.

While we might like to believe that the idea of scheduling has existed since time immemorial, it wasn’t particularly meaningful or practical until November 18, 1883, the day trains in the United States standardized their time zones².

Our story of the train doesn’t stop there, however. The invention of the time zone was just the beginning. If you’ve ever had to coordinate a meeting between people in different time zones, you’ll no doubt know how frustrating and difficult it is to coordinate communication between people who have completely different (but fundamentally valid) notions of what time it is. How could different people disagree on what time it is and still be right? As it turns out, the next stop involves this very line of reasoning, and trains come back into the picture as well.

The Time of the Beholder

Just a decade after time standardization was introduced in the US, a man by the name of Jules Henri Poincaré would take a post at the Bureau des Longitudes in France, giving him oversight into the synchronization of time zones for the French government. A well-regarded and prominent physicist and mathematician, his work at the Bureau would lead him to question the relative perception of time for observers in motion³. In 1900, an unassuming patent clerk working in Bern, Switzerland, leafed through endless pages of patents regarding the electrical transmission of signals. These became more prevalent given the rapid change of pace with which people and goods traveled, and he, too, began to think about how observers in motion would view time differently. In 1905, he would publish one of the most revolutionary scientific papers of all time, on this very concept. This patent clerk’s name was Albert Einstein, and his Theory of Special Relativity, the very same problem Poincaré was working towards, changed not only how we view time, but the very definition of time itself³.

Albert Einstein (1904 or 1905). Wikimedia Commons.

Einstein delighted in conducting what he called “thought experiments” — being a patent clerk in Bern, he didn’t have a laboratory to conduct live experiments, so much of his theoretical work was born out of his own imagination. Given the nature of his quest, and the radical technological transformations of the time, is it any surprise, then, that his thought experiments often revolved around trains passing by one another?

Imagine this. You’re back in the train, and you’ve taken a nap for quite some time; having just woken up, you’re a bit groggy. The train ride is surprisingly smooth, so much so that you can’t feel the bumps of the tracks (this is certainly possible in many developed countries, however, if you live in the United States where AMTRAK is the industry standard, this is pure fantasy, which is why I’m asking you to use your imagination). Outside your window is another train — so close that the windows are rushing by — and it appears to be moving backward. Now tell me, are you moving forward, or is the train opposite you moving backward?

This is the first step to understanding relativity. Einstein posited that as long as you’re moving at a constant velocity, there’s no way to tell. From your perspective, you are sitting still and the other train is moving. From someone in the opposite train, you’re the one that’s moving. Of course, we might be able to settle the debate by looking at which train is actually moving relative to the ground beneath it, but who’s to say the Earth is the arbiter of motion either? If the two trains were simply passing by in empty space, who would be right? You? The other passenger? Neither? Einstein argued that both are valid — after all, observation is the very basis of science, so if two observers necessarily disagreed, then the question wasn’t if their perspectives were valid, but how.

Imagine now that you’re again on a train, sitting in the very center of the train car. The train is moving fast — really fast, so fast that the world around you seems a blur. A woman stands on the platform nearby, looking onward as the train passes by. As the train passes by her gaze, two bolts of lightning simultaneously strike the two ends of the train car. Two bolts, the same time, two ends of the train car. Beyond the absurdity of the situation, everything seems normal.

But to you, sitting in the car, the light from the bolt of lightning at the front of the car will reach you first, since you’re propelled towards it, and the light from the bolt at the back will reach you later. From your perspective, the lightning bolts will not be simultaneous. This is a truly shocking finding⁴.

There’s a simple solution to this apparent paradox, and Einstein was the first to uncover it. Time, it turns out, is relative — due to its relationship with space — it can be stretched and shrunk depending on how fast or slow you’re moving. From this simple idea came several other surprising results, including the famous energy-mass-equivalence E=mc² (notably, this was a byproduct of relativity, not a description of it). In a very practical sense, the concept of relativity is used not only in theoretical physics, but also in our GPS systems, our electromagnets, and our nuclear power plants.

Trains clearly had a strong and long-lasting imprint by fascinating scientific minds and our understanding of how time works, but it had an equally large and important role in underscoring how time feels. Relativity solidified the notion that time could be experienced differently by different observers under different circumstances, a feeling that was already felt on a figurative level by people all over the world who could suddenly see, hear, and experience technologies and cultures they had never known before.

Motion in a Bottle

This same fascination was aided by a set of powerful new technologies that would change the face of the art world, as well as our subjective understanding of time. In 1839, Sir Henry Fox Talbot invented the photograph, rendering visual depictions with never-before-seen levels of realism and accuracy. In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge set up a rig of 12 cameras capturing a horse in motion. By rotating these 12 images, a viewer could see the horses “gallop” before their eyes. In the late 1880s, Louis Le Prince pioneered the work of Muybridge to invent the first ever motion camera. For the first time, temporal memory was captured on film — the passage of time was no longer represented as static, but dynamic. These “animated pictures” were a far cry from the cinematic masterpieces we have with us today, but they represent the nascent stages of an industry that would capture the world’s imagination, dare them to change the world, and challenged them to follow their dreams⁶.

In a stunning parallel to the transformation of modern modes of transportation, a symbolic film would represent the next step beyond Muybridge’s early work of horses galloping and capture the imagination of the movie-going audience. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, invented the first projector, changing the medium by which films were consumed⁶. One of their earliest films showcases their achievement. And what marvel of modern technology would they use to represent it? What symbol could represent the feat they had achieved — the ability to capture time in a bottle?

You guessed it.

The Lumiere Brothers’ film “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat”, 1896. Wikimedia Commons.

Not all of this might go through your mind every time you step foot into a train car, but it’s impossible to ignore how the train manifested itself as a representation for a fundamental shift in how humans interacted with each other and the world. Trains facilitated the transfer of goods and services, became strategic channels for resources in war, and made the world feel less distant. But they also did so much more. In the sciences, trains impacted the standardization of time, motivated faster communication, and inspired the theory of relativity. In the arts, they served as a symbolic representation of change, industry, and progress. As the poster-child for the industrial revolution, they changed our modern conception of what could be possible through human ingenuity.

And even though you might not realize it when you’re sitting in one, as you stare through the window out at the rolling fields of grass, watching the world displayed before you — not as an impenetrable expanse but a traversable landscape — you might just feel time pass you by.

[1] Buchanan, Robert Angus. “Steam Locomotive.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Oct. 2019, www.britannica.com/technology/history-of-technology/Steam-locomotive.

[2] Nix, Elizabeth. “When Did the United States Start Using Time Zones?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Apr. 2015, www.history.com/news/when-did-the-united-states-start-using-time-zones.

[3] Miller, Arthur I. Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.

[4] Waldrop, Mitch. “Einstein’s Relativity Explained in 4 Simple Steps.” National Geographic, 22 May 2020, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2017/05/einstein-relativity-thought-experiment-train-lightning-genius/.

[5] “The Invention of Photography — The Royal Society — Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/the-invention-of-photography-the-royal-society/fAJij3PkQZd1Lw?hl=en.

[6] Cook, David A., and Robert Sklar. “History of the Motion Picture.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/art/history-of-the-motion-picture.

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