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  • The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950 by Vanessa Ogle
  • Avner Wishnitzer
The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950. By vanessa ogle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 279pp. $39.95 (hardcover).

The last five years witnessed a wave of new publications on temporality, especially—but not exclusively—in Muslim societies. Among these one can mention the volume edited by Françios Georgeon and Frédéric Hitzel, Les Ottomans et le tempts (2011), Alexis McCrossen’s Marking Modern Times (2013), On Barak’s On Time (2013), Stephen Blake’s Time in Early Modern Islam (2013), Victorian Time, edited by Trish Ferguson (2013), Barbara F. Stowasser’s The Day Begins at Sunset (2014), my own Reading Clocks, Alla Turca (2015), and the list can go on.

Vanessa Ogle’s fine work joins this growing literature and in some important ways, changes what we thought we knew about the unification of time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Based on an impressive corpus of source material in English, French, German, and Arabic, gleaned from archives and libraries around the world, the book offers a truly global perspective on time reform and yields fresh insights not only about temporality but about the nature of globalization and the connectivity of the modern world, back then and right now.

As opposed to more localized histories of time, questions pertaining to the unification of time worldwide have mostly been dealt with by [End Page 281] historians of science, who focused mainly on the West. The story as previously told, typically began with the spread of railways and telegraph networks and pretty much ended in the 1884 International Meridian Conference that convened in Washington, D.C. and laid the foundations for an international system of time-keeping.

Ogle’s book widens the scope in terms of the themes covered, the main actors examined, and the temporal and geographic span of the story. First, it offers discussions of hitherto largely neglected topics such as Daylight Savings and calendar unification efforts, and weaves them into the larger story of time unification. Second, in addition to the tiny number of scientists, diplomats, and railway officials who have been involved in various time-unification conferences, the book looks at many others who were keenly interested in time reform, and crucial in promoting it. These include state and colonial officials, journalists, self-proclaimed reformers, and common people writing complaints or letters to newspapers.

Finally, using a global, rather than Euro-American scale of analysis, the book demonstrates that the changes in the ways time was measured, managed, and conceived were not limited to any one country, region, or continent. The process was global in its scope, and extremely entangled in its nature. For example, Chapter One demonstrates that the more time became an international issue, the more it assumed local, national significance. The chapter follows French and German politics of time and shows how its unification was actually promoted first and foremost by state officials who saw the implementation of standard time as a tool of state building. The 1884 convention, so prominent in previous histories of time unification, was hardly ever mentioned by these officials and yet their push for the unification of national time ultimately facilitated the global process.

Chapter Three, to cite another example, shows that in the non-west, the move to Greenwich Mean Time took even longer than in Europe. Colonial states had neither the will nor the capacity to implement such a shift on a large scale. In fact, in difference to the picture in the extant scholarship, it was not colonial authorities that sought to subject the periphery by implementing GMT or the time of the metropolis. The process was much more convoluted and often it was regional rather than imperial authorities that promoted it, and it was usually the time of a local capital that was made the standard time, rather than the time of the metropolis.

The universalization of clock time took much longer than previously assumed and it was only in the mid-twentieth century that a truly global, stable system of time was in place. The parallel project of [End Page 282] a universal calendar, which...


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