Tic, Toc


Time and Productivity//March 2018 • Sarah Yahm

How We Ended Up Living Life on the Clock

Photo by Chris Lawton

Our days are structured around clocks—from when we get up to when we eat, to when we finally go to sleep. Except for a few confused days after Daylight Saving Time, we take for granted that our way of slicing up the day into seconds and minutes corresponds to a natural (and sometimes moral) truth. But like many unquestioned truths, it’s not really a truth at all. Clock time is not by any means natural and is a relatively new way of understanding the world.  


Pre-industrial peoples saw the world primarily in terms of tasks. Farmers worked brutal hours during the growing months and then spent the long months of non-growing weather relatively (although by no means entirely) idle. Methods for measuring the passage of time were similarly task-focused. In the late social historian EP Thompson’s 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” he shared examples of how time was kept before it was standardized into the segments we use today.


In Chile they cooked an egg for the length of time it took to recite an Ave Maria, in Burma monks knew it was time to wake up when they could see the veins in their hands, and herding peoples all over the world measured time according to the grazing needs of their particular animals. Some of these measurements were quite precise—“rice cooking” time corresponds fairly closely to our half an hour—while others, like the medieval English “pissing while,” were delightfully imprecise, although very satisfying to say.


Although our system of breaking the day up into hours can be traced back all the way to ancient Egypt, and mechanical clocks have been around since the 13th century, these early clocks didn’t structure daily life for the majority of society until the Industrial Revolution.  


Once factories emerged and owners began paying workers by the hour, not the piece, they launched a campaign against unregulated and imprecise notions of time. Factory owners needed workers to arrive at the same time each day, to work quickly and efficiently, and to produce at scale.  The erratic rhythms of task time didn’t work on the factory floor. But clock time wasn’t consistent from factory to factory or from town to town. Each town had their own ‘time zone’, and it wasn’t until the emergence of the railroads, which required consistent timetables, that the town’s times were forced to match up.


Before ‘railway time’, Factory owners took advantage of the fact that they controlled the clock, simultaneously insisting upon the objective truth of clock-time and then altering clocks to suit their own needs. They would even set their clock back to extend the work day so that they could extract more time from their laborers. These manipulations contributed to industrial workers distrust of “time-discipline.”  


But because these new notions of time were not innate or natural, it took over a century of concerted effort for industrialists to teach laborers to think of their work, and their time, as an  abstract commodity. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that many workers stopped viewing Mondays as an extension of Sundays, their one day of leisure. “Saint Monday” was reserved for nursing hangovers, conducting personal business, hanging out at the pub, or showing up late and leaving early. Benjamin Franklin (and other Founding Fathers) publicly despaired about the public’s enthusiasm for Saint Monday and Saint Tuesday, concerned that America would fail to become a productive republic if the working classes insisted on being so undisciplined. Franklin, always an effective propagandist, synthesized this new time-sense into pithy phrases that we still use today, like the ever popular “time is money.”


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, factory owners, educators, and industrialists dedicated themselves to building a disciplined workforce. They wrote pamphlets, created time-cards, institutionalized punishments, and utilized bells and even jingles to help train each new wave of workers in industrial time-discipline. It was a constant process. Each time the industrialists had succeeded in teaching one set of workers, another would appear in the cities fresh from the countryside, and the whole process would begin anew.  


The Lowell Mills of Massachusetts provide a window into how workers were socialized into this industrial “time-sense.” As farm girls from the countryside flooded into Southern New England towns looking for work, they were trained according to a rigid system of bells. Every part of their day was punctuated by bells that sometimes divided their time into chunks as small as 10 minutes. Instead of waking up when it was time to milk, they woke up with the first bell. Instead of combining work with pleasure and singing while they knit or wove by the fire. They had work time and then they had separate leisure time.


The Lowell factory owners worked hard to establish clock time as absolute, objective truth.    They prided themselves on their consistency, publicizing the (supposed) link between their bells and natural authority. According to historian Michael O’Malley, this reinforced the semi-artificial connection between clock times and the sun, between the natural order and minutes and hours, and helped legitimize the idea of time as something naturally-derived but mechanically-organized.


But none of these strategies—bells, time cards, and fines—would have been effective without a corresponding ideology which taught that timeliness and efficiency were higher moral goods. The Church had always preached that idleness was sinful, (idle hands are the devil’s playground), but if the ongoing popularity of Saint Monday and Saint Tuesday were  any indication, employees insisted on setting their own work rhythms.


Where the Church failed, factories and modern schools eventually succeeded.  


Modern schooling trained children, from a young age, to function in an industrial system, and to pay attention to the clock. In America, public schools were the training grounds for factory workers, disciplining chaotic children into productive producers. That’s why the hidden curriculum of schools today—even purportedly progressive ones—still enforces timeliness as a moral good in and of itself.


Schools, combined with the rise in both popularity and accessibility of physical watches and synchronized clocks eventually succeeded in creating a workforce with both an internalized clock and a belief system to go along with it. Today, the moral truth of timeliness remains relatively unquestioned. Tardiness is widely seen as disrespectful. Lord Michael Bates recently resigned from the House of Lords of the United Kingdom just for being a few minutes late. Horrified at the “discourtesy” his of tardiness, he believed himself no longer worthy or fit for the job. The resignation was short-lived (Prime Minister Theresa May refused his resignation that same day), but the message is clear: lateness is a moral failing.


But even those of us who don't work according to clock time (writers, academics, and artists, for example) still have to struggle against the now internalized shame about inefficiency, lateness, and unregulated work habits. The number of people who work from home at least part-time has risen steeply over the last decade. The idea of working remotely suggests greater flexibility and less punishing hours, but studies have found that people who work from home actually work longer than their more clock-bound in-office counterparts, likely because they’re afraid of appearing inefficient and lazy. They don’t want to be seen as taking advantage of the system.


We no longer need a system of bells to police us, because we police ourselves.


Did You Know?

  • The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, but mechanicals clocks like those we have today were not invented until around 1300.  

  • Until the industrial revolution, every village lived in it’s own time zone.

  • Hummingbirds keep track of time, calibrating when to visit certain flowers to guarantee maximum nectar.


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