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  • The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950 by Vanessa Ogle
  • Yulia Frumer (bio)
The Global Transformation of Time: 1870–1950. By Vanessa Ogle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 288. $39.95.

What were the forces that drove the globalization of time? Vanessa Ogle shows that, although the initial idea of creating one universal system of time had already emerged by the 1870s, it was not fully implemented until the 1950s. By exploring the practical and conceptual struggles with the implementation of universal time in various societies, Ogle achieves two goals. First, she provides insights into the variety of factors that shaped the management of time in different groups. Second, she offers a compelling explanation of the apparently paradoxical relationship between “the increasing integration and connections between world regions and states on the one hand and the simultaneous rise of nationalism and powerful state apparatuses on the other” (p. 5).

Ogle shows that despite the seemingly abstract nature of the idea of universal time—as rooted in a mathematically calculated mean time and manifested in twenty-four time zones—people discussed it in concrete terms and in relation to the specific concerns they faced. Even in Europe—often perceived as the epitome of rational modernity—the seemingly abstract notion of universal time was forged by particular relationships among the scientific establishment, railroad authorities, local administrations, and political ideologies, all of which varied from country to country. Furthermore, despite industrialization and the related sense of rational capitalist modernity, people in 1910s–1920s Europe saw time as inherently related to, if not embedded in, concrete situations—meals, sleep, workdays, etc. When the notion of universal time spread outside of Europe, it was similarly discussed in local contexts and tied to social forces, such as cultural “revival” and religious observance in early-twentieth-century Beirut.

One side effect of a situation-dependent perception of time was a growing sense of nationalism. Whether in Germany or in France, in colonial India or in the late Ottoman Empire, discussions of nationwide time zones inevitably led to questions about the principles that justified time-based unification. Interpreting local times as inherently related to the land and the culture, people demanded that national times be determined by the local time in the capital city, rather than the position of the country on the globe, and that the calendars represent only the dominant culture and religion. Thus, although the idea of universal time tapped into the sense of interconnectedness, practical decisions involved in translating this notion into concrete time zones erased the multicultural temporal plurality and reinforced nationalistic sentiments.

In making the above arguments, Ogle represents a growing group of historians (such as On Barak and Alexis McCrossen) who resist E. P. Thompson’s [End Page 275] vision of historical development in the perceptions of time. The particular point on which Ogle takes Thompson to task is his insistence on the concrete/abstract dichotomy in perceptions of time that supposedly reflected the agrarian/industrial rift in the nineteenth century. Ogle shows that even after the formulation of a mathematical and abstract notion of mean time, and deep into the industrial world of the twentieth century, people still perceived time as task-oriented, both within and outside of Europe.

One major contribution of The Global Transformation of Time derives from its comparative perspective. By looking at the particular challenges different societies faced while dealing with the same problem—the implementation of time zones based on the idea of universal mean time—Ogle disputes the claims of modernizing forces and shows that the globalization of time was “uneven,” following no single pattern (p. 205). Her approach both questions the tendency to see contingent characteristics of certain European societies as representative of inherent historical dynamics, and calls attention to factors that may have been overlooked in European cases.

Another significant contribution of the book is the claim that utility was an outcome rather than a cause of structural changes—in this case in the management of time. Ogle shows that although trains and telegraphs contributed to creating a sense of interconnectedness, they did not create a need for unified time. In fact, she claims that “transportation and communication...


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pp. 275-276
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