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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 329-330

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Book Review

Selling the True Time:
Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America

Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America. By Ian R. Bartky (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000) 320pp. $45.00

During the past two decades, Bartky has published more than a dozen articles on timekeeping in the United States. The journals involved range from Sky and Telescope to Scientific American to Technology and Culture. In this book, he pulls everything together in an elegant synthesis. Not that timekeeping is not a field well worked by historians: David Landes, Revolution in Time (Cambridge, Mass., 2000), and Carlene Stephens, Inventing Standard Time (Washington, D.C., 1983), come to mind, and especially Michael O'Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Washington, D.C., 1996). But Selling the True Time differs substantially from Keeping Watch. Whereas O'Malley's book is focused on time as a cultural artifact, Bartky (a long-time employee of the National Bureau of Standards) is more interested in time's technical aspects. He concentrates on the role of the railroads and of American astronomers whose interest was research in geophysics. Eventually, the astronomers pressed for federal legislation establishing a single uniform time for the entire country. What the country got instead was standard time based on uniform zones spanning the continent.

Bartky's narrative is complex, and he does not always make it easyto distinguish forest from trees. But it rewards close reading. We learnabout the practice of selling "observatory time" to municipalities and railroads, a phenomenon Bartky believes to be unique to the United States; we learn that "accuracy" was not nearly as important to most citizens, or even to the railroads, as "consistency"; and we learn about the transformation in American consciousness from local to regional to national time, the culmination coming on November 18, 1883, when American railroads discarded the dozens of different times on which they had based their schedules and adopted Standard Railway Time, with a set of zones indexed to the meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This was the first step, Bartky tells us, "in what would become the worldwide system of civil time zones that we now call Standard Time" (1). Not until 1918, with the establishment of "an act to save daylight," did Congress again get involved in the issue of timekeeping.

Bartky writes that "Uncovering the facts concerning opposition to, and support for, national time in nineteenth-century America sheds light on a momentous process in which government agencies, scientific institutions, and private businesses all played roles that would be impossible in America--or the world--today" (4). He has mined several kinds of sources: the archival records of railroads, observatories, and municipalities; technical journals and annual reports; and the writings of key figures in the scientific establishment, such as Cleveland Abbe and Alexander Dallas Bache. He has also taken into account the literature on American science and technology by such historians as Dupree and Reingold. 1 It is [End Page 329] a rich mix. But, then, time is a rich subject: J.T. Fraser, founder of the International Society for the History of Time, terms it "constitutive of reality." Though Bartky addresses only a limited facet of that reality, he does so skillfully and persuasively, and, one is tempted to say, definitively.


Robert C. Post
University of Maryland


1. See,for example, Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (Cambridge,Mass., 1957);Nathan Reingold, Science American Style (New Brunswick,N.J.,1991).



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