Details from a lithograph celebrating the passing of Daylight Saving legislation. Library of Congress.

On the Clock

A (Brief) History of Time

As we switch the clocks to “spring forward” this week, we’re taking a look at time itself in American history. In this episode, we look at the changing ways Americans have experienced the 24-hour day — from pre-industrial times right on up through today’s era of time-shifted media. Along with their guests, Peter, Ed, and Brian examine the role of economic forces in shaping our relationship with the clock – like the powerful Gilded Age railroad officials who got together in 1883 and carved the continental U.S. into five time zones, introducing Americans to the idea of “standard time.” And they explore how people have experienced the rhythm of night and day — and why the advent of electric lighting changed that rhythm forever. And finally, they ask, is unlimited time always a good thing? A loving look at basketball’s iconic “shot-clock” offers answers.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Full Episode Transcript

NOTE: This episode is a rebroadcast. There may be minor differences between the episode and the transcript you see below.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers. It’s time again for daylight savings. And that means springing forward and losing an hour of sleep. If you’re struggling to rise and shine after this week’s time change, well, you might try out this 1851 alarm clock.

ROGER EKIRCH: Essentially, the front legs of the bedstead folded underneath after a bell sounded, thus depositing the sleeper upon his or her feet.

ED: For most of us, thank goodness, the time change isn’t that hard to adjust to today. But when it was first implemented 1919, many Americans were appalled.

PETER: It’s quite an outrageous thing to do, just insist no, no, now it’s 3:00 o’clock. There are plenty of people in Congress up to 1919, who will get up and denounce daylight savings because it violates God’s law.

ED: Today on the show, a history of time in America.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers, the 19th Century Guy, and Peter Onuf, our very own–

PETER: 18th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And what I need you to do, listener, is imagine in this past New Year’s Eve. Better yet, imagine 11:59, this past New Year’s Eve. Now, there’s a reasonable chance that you were standing in someone’s living room watching Ryan Seacrest as he counted down the final seconds before the New Year.

And whether you were in New York or somewhere else across the nation, you were counting the exact same sequence. This whole idea of people who are nowhere near each other doing something at exactly the same time, that had to be invented. And it was invented in the 1860s.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: As they’re beginning to finish the transcontinental railroad, they’re imagining a way of celebrating it simultaneously, having everybody in the country in on it, a simultaneous experience. Since it unites the East and West, wouldn’t it be great if everybody could know exactly when it’s done.

BRIAN: This is Mike O’Malley. He’s an historian at George Mason University. And he says that in 1869, this idea of a national moment of simultaneity was totally new. The Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad were about to meet up at Promontory Summit. And head honchos of the railroads decided to rig up this mechanism so that everyone could share in this moment.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: And they actually have a hammer which has got wires coming from it. On one end, the wires are connected to a telegraph. And then there’s other wires on the spike. And the idea is when the metal hammer hits the spike, click, the whole country will hear the click that indicates the blow that drives the last spike.

They’re all there. The trains are facing each other. There are all these railroad officials and tired and exultant workers hanging in the distance.

BRIAN: And Leland Stanford, one of the owners of the line coming from the Pacific to Utah, is granted the honor of driving the last spike, a spike made of 17 carat gold, mine you.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: So Stanford, who was pretty much a grocer before he became a railroad baron, raises the hammer and swings and thunk, he hits a wooden tie. He misses the spike completely. And the water breaks and that’s the end of that. So a telegraph operator just presses a button.

PETER: The signal shoots out across the lines and makes its way to the operators across the country. And everybody shares in their first simultaneously experienced moment ever, or so they thought.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: If you look at all over the country when the golden spike was driven, every city will tell you a different time and different newspapers within a given city will tell you a different time

PETER: And this is where our story for today really begins. Because in the 1860s, time was well, sort of every man for himself. Every railroad, every newspaper, every church, every town figured out the time on their own. There was no central authority on time.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: So there’s three different times reported in San Francisco as to when that spike was actually driven because there is no Standard Time for San Francisco. So there’s no way to actually answer when the spike was driven. They have the idea of simultaneity, the intellectual idea, the capacity. But they don’t have the technology. They don’t have the means to make it happen.

ED: So in today’s special daylight saving episode of BackStory, we’re taking an hour to consider well, the meaning of an hour and how that’s changed over time. We’ll talk about how America went from a temporal, free-for-all, where literally anybody could decide what time it was, to a country fixated on keeping the same time. We’ll look at the impact electricity has had on people’s basic experience of day and night. And we’ll hear how a 24-second experiment saved one of America’s most beloved sports.

Today, we take it for granted that within the continental US, there just four different correct times of day, one for each time zone. If it’s noon in Boston, you can be sure it’s also noon in Washington, DC. But in the early 19th century, Boston’s noon wasn’t the same as DC’s noon. People judged time by the Sun, strangely enough. And noon happened whenever the Sun was directly overhead. Because Boston is further east than DC, its noon happen 24 minutes earlier than it did in Washington.

Now, when it took days or even weeks to travel between cities, a 24-minute difference really didn’t matter that much. But then, Americans began traveling by railroad. Suddenly, it mattered a lot.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: Railroads were beginning to run the whole operation, on the time of the city they originated in.

ED: Again, this is historian Mike O’Malley.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: So the train originated in Boston and you were in Worcester, you’d notice a significant difference if you’re to the west, between the local time and the time the railroad was running on.

ED: And if you had say, a 2:00 o’clock train to catch, well, was that 2:00 o’clock Boston time or 2:00 o’clock Worcester time? The system was even more confusing in cities that served several rail lines.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: Supposedly in Buffalo, there were five different clocks, one for each line that used the station and then one for the local Buffalo time.

ED: Looking back several decades later, Harper’s Magazine wrote that quote, “With respect to time, the whole country was a pathless wilderness. Any traveler trying to wend his way across it was doomed to bewildering confusion.” After a decade or two of this, railroads came up with a plan to simplify.

In 1849, all the train lines in New England agreed to set their clocks to the same time, as determined by one especially good Boston clock maker. It was America’s first time zone. Railroads in other parts of the country followed suit.

By 1870, the nation was a patchwork of around 80 time zones, each one following the twists and turns of a particular railroad line. The travelers would still have to reset their watches when they transferred from a New England train to a Southern train say, but there were fewer of those adjustments of time than before. From the railroads’ prospective, this system seemed to work just fine. And they might have stuck with it had it not been for one pesky group that kept pushing for even more standardization, scientists, especially from the brand-new National Weather Service.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: They’re starting to figure out about fronts and drawing isobars on maps that show a weather front. But for our front to be accurate, you need to know if the guy telegraphs in, it’s 2:00 o’clock here in Madison, Wisconsin and it’s rainy, what does he mean, 2:00 o’clock by the Sun? Does he mean Chicago time? Does he mean railroad time? What does 2:00 o’clock mean?

And so they begin to say well, we need a standard. We need a uniform zone system that will tell us exactly what time it is everywhere.

ED: Railroad officials quickly realized that this was one effort they would have to head off at the pass. Because the time zones that would make life easy for a scientist, zones defined by straight lines running north to south, would make it much harder for the railroads.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: Their concern was that if the government introduces a zone system, it won’t fit the breaking points the railroads have already set up. They’re already breaking at points where say the Baltimore Ohio meets the Pennsylvania. They’d shift time there. And they don’t want to have to redo it all.

ED: In October 1883, the heads of the country’s major railroads met in Chicago. They knew that if they didn’t act, the government would. And so they devised a system of time zones that worked for them. There were five of these zones. And the railroads didn’t bother with legislation or with Congress. After all, this is the railroads we’re talking about.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: They just say we’re doing it and you can get on board.

ED: A month later, they implemented what they called Standard Time.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: They called it the “day of two noons.” That’s the nickname. The railroad announced it’s a Sunday. Then at noon on this day, November 18, they’re just going to stop all operations. Wherever the train is, it’s going to stop. And it’s going to wait however long it takes to catch up with what the new Standard Time will be.

And in cities, any city that agrees to go along with it, and most of them do, they stop the clocks or they suddenly move them ahead. And in major cities in America, people get wind of this. And they gather around the clocks wondering sort of anxiously, what’s going to happen. It’s a puzzling thing.

There’s jokes that if you slip on a banana peel at the right moment, you’ll take 15 minutes to fall because time will stop. And then it happens. And the people look at each other and they shrug and nothing much happens.

ED: For most people, syncing their local clocks with railroad time wasn’t that big a deal. It was at most a half hour change, one way or another. But there were a number of holdouts.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: The most famous case that was in the news all over the country was Bangor, Maine. It refused to change its clocks. They were a half an hour or more different from the local Sun. And the mayor refused to change the clocks for a while. And there’s a little town in Ohio where the school board refuses to change the clocks. And the city government has them arrested.

But there are cases into the 20th century, well into the 20th century, where time becomes an issue in courts of law, for example the expiration of a contract. There’s a case in, I think it’s Iowa, I might be remembering wrong, where it’s about last call in a bar. And the bar is open pass the legal hour.

And they go to the bar keeper and they arrest him. And he says no, no, I’m running on Sun time. And he’s legally open he says, because I’m running on solar time, not on railroad time.

And the court agrees. They say that the time of day, since time immemorial, has been governed by the Sun, the moon, and stars. And we aren’t going to set that aside on the mere pretext that the convenience of the railroads demands it.

ED: But it didn’t take too long for most Americans to see that Standard Time made life more convenient for them as well. Before long, even the resistant communities have gotten on board. And a change that the railroads had originally framed in terms of large-scale logistics, came to have real meaning in people’s personal lives.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: What I think is that what Standard Time did is it changed the nature of community. Before Standard Time, the time of day was what the local Sun was doing and was noon in your valley. Or you know, on the other side of the mountain, it was not quite noon yet. But Standard Time, if everybody adopted it, it put people in new forms of relationship to each other.

So after 1883, from, well not quite from Bangor, Maine, from Portland, Maine to Atlanta, everybody’s on Eastern Time. 8:00 o’clock in the morning, means 8:00 o’clock in the morning, regardless of what the Sun is doing. So there’s a form of community is one word for it, or national simultaneity, that wasn’t possible before that.

ED: Right, national simultaneity. And we do tend to think about Standard Time as one of the important nationalizing moments in our history.


ED: But by creating time zones in the United States does that reinforce regional ties? After all, you’re kind of bound together with all those people up to the next dividing line.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: Yeah. And that’s probably a significant point. If you think of north, south as being one of the great divides of American life, this obliterates north, south. And it makes north and south the same, all along the eastern seaboard.

ED: Right.

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: Whereas before, north and south were very different. It makes east and west a more meaningful difference. And it unites a whole western region, from Texas up to Minnesota, in a single time. So it does rearrange the kind of priorities for community.

ED: In 1918, Congress made Standard Time the law of the land. It was the official legislative stamp on a new way of thinking about time and about America.

Joining us to tell that story was Michael O’Malley. He’s the author of Keeping Watch, a History of American Time.


PETER: We’re going to take short break, but don’t go away. When we come back, why early Americans found it convenient to visit their neighbors at 1:00 AM.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.


BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hello.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf is with us.

PETER: Yeah, hey.

BRIAN: We’re talking today about the changing ways Americans have understood time in the course of their daily routines. Up until a little more than 100 years ago, the most important marker of time for most people was the rising and setting of the Sun.

PETER: And then, artificial light entered the scene. Now, people had been experimenting with electricity going all the way back to 1800. But it wasn’t until the final decades of the 19th century that electric light became commercially viable. Meg Cramer has the story of what the advent of light bulbs meant for one small town in Indiana.

MEG CRAMER: In 1880, T.P. Keater and Thad Butler took a trip to Cleveland. They were the editors of the Wabash Plain Dealer, the local paper in Wabash, Indiana.

They had heard about a man in Cleveland experimenting with electric lighting. And Keater and Butler had an idea. If they could bring just a few of these electric lights to Wabash, they could light up the whole town. And if they could pull it off, Wabash would be the first town in the world that could say it was entirely illuminated by electricity.

When they got to Cleveland, they met Charles Brush. Brush had installed 12 electric arc lamps in Cleveland’s Monumental Park as a sort of testing ground. The lamps were certainly a sight, floating above the park on posts 20 feet tall.

At the top of each post, there was an open glass bulb the size of a cantaloupe. Two long rods fed into it, one from the top, one from the bottom, nearly touching end to end.

When lit, a spark inside the bulb jumped from one rod to the next, tracing a bright electric arc. As the lamp heated up, the tips of the rods glowed hotter and hotter, giving off a strange violet white light, so bright it was painful to look at. It was hundreds of times brighter than the gas lamps people were used to. Someone said they looked like miniature moons, held captive in glass globes.

Keater and Butler were convinced. And they struck a deal with Brush to bring the lights to Wabash.

The plan was to put four arc lamps on the dome of the Wabash courthouse. The lamps would cast light half a mile in all directions, illuminating the whole town. For Charles Brush, Wabash was a chance to prove that his arc lamps were more than just an experiment. If a small farming town in Indiana could light up the night, it could only be a matter of time before bigger cities started lining up to do the same. And for Wabash, well, this would make the town famous.

But some people in Wabash did have their doubts, not just about the costs or utility of the lights, but about the dubious virtues of an electrified night. One resident worried that late night raccoon hunting would become so popular it would drive up the cost of hunting dogs. Others were concerned about how the light might affect crop yields and livestock.

BRIAN: The Plain Dealer says the electric light will virtually turn night into day. And as chickens never sleep during daylight, it’s only a matter of time when every fowl within the limits of Wabash will die for lack of sleep.

MEG CRAMER: And if all that sounds a little crazy, you’ve got to imagine just how dark night could be in 1880. This was back when New Yorkers could see the Milky Way from downtown Manhattan, when starlight cast a shadow, when cities turned off their gas lamps during a full moon because the moonlight was enough.

They waited in the darkness, crowded in by thousands of people whose faces they couldn’t see, eyes straining, fixed on the black shape of the courthouse, anticipating what it would all look like under a bright electric light. And then, it happened. Suddenly from the towering dome of the court burst a flood of light.

This is the account from the Wabash Plain Dealer. A flood of light, which under ordinary circumstances would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands, no shout however or token of joy disturbed the deep silence.

People stood, overwhelmed with awe, it said, as if in the presence of the supernatural. Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement. They contemplated the new wonder in science, as lightning brought down from the heavens.

The next day, headlines from Michigan to Chicago read things like, Wabash enjoys the distinction of being the only city in the world entirely lighted by electricity. People were wild about the idea of electric lighting. Soon, cities like Detroit and Minneapolis installed their own electric moons, huge clusters of arc lamps, suspended from iron posts 200 feet tall. One lamp, some claimed, was worth eight police officers.

By next year, Charles Brush had sold 6,000 arc plants nationwide. And while worries about sleep-deprived chickens and price-inflated coon hounds now felt overblown, there were other consequences to lighting the night, consequences nobody seemed to predict.

Before electric light, darkness defined the edges of the day. When the Sun went down, the workday was over. It was time to head home. But now, factory owners could just hit a switch and extend the day’s work. With the lighting of Wabash, industrial America opened its newest frontier, nighttime. Electric lights had pushed back the darkness, blurring the line between night and day.

BRIAN: Meg Cramer is a radio producer in New York.

PETER: Now as you can imagine, the more people were able to get done after sunset, the later they went to bed in the evening. As it turns out, that shift had fundamental consequences, not just for when people slept, but for how they slept.

To find out more about this, I sat down with Roger Ekirch, an historian at Virginia Tech. We started was what had counted as a normal night’s sleep back in my century, the 18th century.

ROGER EKIRCH: Typically, people went to bed between 9:00 and 10:00 PM. They would then sleep for several hours until some time shortly past midnight, whereupon they would awaken from what was widely termed first sleep. They would then remain awake, up and about for up to an hour or more.

PETER: And what they do, Roger? It’s dark.

ROGER EKIRCH: Anything and everything.

PETER: Yeah.

ROGER EKIRCH: They typically meditated, prayed, made love, not necessarily in that order. They pondered dreams, from whence they often had just awoken. Some visited neighbors, still others plundered a neighbor’s orchard.

Most people then took a second sleep of several hours, roughly the same duration as their first sleep. And then they would awaken for good around between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning.

PETER: So what happened? Here we are by 1900, and it’s probably earlier than that, you could certainly say by then the idea of a good night’s sleep means one night’s sleep. It’s not two night’s sleep. What happened?

ROGER EKIRCH: There was a shift in cultural attitudes during the 19th century, propelled by the Industrial Revolution, that certainly made consolidated sleep far more appealing and attractive than it had ever been.

PETER: Well, Roger, are you talking about the workday in factories and offices, to impose time discipline on labor?

ROGER EKIRCH: Yes. And the growth in time consciousness–

PETER: Right.

ROGER EKIRCH: –and the desire on the part of the middle class, but other segments of the population as well, to achieve maximum productivity and efficiency, not just at work, but in their daily life.

So their arose a reform movement arguably every bit as popular as the temperance movement, entitled early rising. And what early rising referred to was getting up after your first sleep. By now, owing in part to the prevalence of artificial lighting, people were going to bed later, so we’re not talking about getting up after the first sleep, immediately after midnight. But they were urged to forsake their second sleep, which increasingly was regarded as being unhealthy, unproductive, and a temptation to immoral nocturnal visions.

PETER: Ugh, we can’t– this is a family show. We can’t describe that. So let’s talk a little bit more about this reform movement. Who were these reformers and what were they up to?

ROGER EKIRCH: Generally, middle class. But one reason why I think it has not attracted much historical interest is that it was a movement that required self-policing, self-discipline. There was little that one could do is a group, even though there was an early rising men’s association formed in New York City and also one in London.

More to the point, parents were urged to socialize their young children at a very early age to this new regiment. As early as 1829, an article appeared in the Philadelphia-based Journal of Health. The author reflected, if they, referring to young children, turn upon the other ear, to take a second nap, they will be taught to look upon it as an intemperance, not at all redounding to their credit.

PETER: Well, how about alarm clocks? Did they come into wide use then? Is that a part of the new regime. I mean, you’re supposed to internalize it so much that you are your own alarm clock. But this is the heyday of the mass distribution of time pieces, isn’t it?

ROGER EKIRCH: Exactly, both clocks and watches. And there was in England an alarm clock bed that was–

PETER: Whoa.

ROGER EKIRCH: –displayed at the London World’s Fair, at the famed Crystal Palace in 1851. And essentially, the front legs of the bedstead folded underneath after a bell sounded, thus depositing the sleeper upon his or her feet. At the base of the bed, reported one newspaper account, and I’m quoting now, “A cold bath can be placed if he is at all disposed to ensure being rapidly rendered awake.”

PETER: That would do it. That would do it. Wouldn’t you say Roger that the routinization of a good night’s sleep, it’s being compressed, as you describe, into the usual eight hours, is central to our modern time consciousness? In many ways, it’s the new way of sleeping through the night that sets our internal clocks–


PETER: –and calibrates them with the clocks that are pervasive in our environment.

ROGER EKIRCH: Yes. By the early 20th century, sleeping through the night had become, as one newspaper put it, the usual rule.

Interestingly, only in the early 20th century does the variety of insomnia that we refer to today as middle of the night insomnia, quite widespread, is that perceived as a medical problem. No one in the pre-industrial age referred to being awakened naturally in the middle of the night as a problem. No medical text referred to it in that vein. It was thought to be utterly natural.

PETER: Hey, Roger. Thank you so much.

ROGER EKIRCH: I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. Peter, sweet dreams.

PETER: All right, you too.

Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past. You can a hear longer version of our conversation at


PETER: Now, if you’re tuning in, this is BackStory. And I’m Peter Onuf, representing the 18th century.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, speaking for the 19th century.

BRIAN: And the 20th century has elected me to defend it. I’m Brian Balogh.

Unfortunately, listening to all the elements of the show so far, I got to acknowledge, it’s the 19th century that is grabbing the gold ring. I mean it sounds to me like everything about time turns on these changes, the electric light, the railroad–

ED: Unless-

BRIAN: –all this stuff that happens in Ed’s century.

ED: I’ve been waiting so long for you to see the light here, Brian. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because think what happens in the factory, in which people’s lives are divided for the first time into the hourly wage, in which people’s lives are sliced and diced, run by huge clocks and whistles. You come in and you punch the clock and it punches you back.

PETER: Oh, oh, [INAUDIBLE]. Save the–

ED: Yeah.

PETER: –punching. Save the whistling. You guys are a couple of vulgar technological determinists.

BRIAN: Ouch.

PETER: Come on. Time consciousness does not come out of the Industrial Revolution. It’s not determined by artificial light or factories or any of the things that you are talking about, you and Brian are talking about.

Look, it goes back to the, well beginning of time. And there’s of course natural time, the Sun coming up and going down on a regular basis. But we note that regularity. That’s part of our time consciousness. And there’s also sacred time, the notion that we live on God’s time, in our brief moment on Earth and we have to cherish every moment. We have to redeem the moment.

And in the same way, the marketplace does the same thing, commercial transactions. Now, Ben Franklin says time is money. He says this before we have punch clocks. Now think about the market, the market that Ben Franklin himself what have known in Boston and later in Philadelphia. That’s a real place for people get together. And they say to each other hey, let’s meet at the market on a particular day.

But increasingly, the market is an abstraction. It’s not where you are. It’s where your money is or where your commodities are going or it’s where things are coming from.

We’re talking an abstraction. We have a new way of thinking about the world that’s not immediate and it’s not right around us. Our world is not our neighbors. Our world is a much bigger place.

And when it becomes bigger, we develop these abstract schemes in time and space, latitude and longitude. The way we keep track of the passage of time, that’s a product of well, the era of discovery, the settlement of the New World. And most of all, the 18th century Enlightenment brings it all into clear focus.

ED: And it makes possible, the efflorescence of time awareness in my century. Now Peter, it’s very kind of you guys to lay the foundation for the real transformation that I see. All those things are fine if you’re Benjamin Franklin or you’re some scientist or you’re some preacher. I’m talking about people getting up every day with a lunch pail and having the entire course of their lives determined by the clock.

BRIAN: Well, I’d love for you guys to keep arguing about whether time is God’s time or time is some abstraction represented in the chiming of the factory bell or whistle because none of that stuff really matters–

ED: Ouch.

BRIAN: –in the 20th century. In the 20th century, what really matters is for the first time people begin to struggle over who owns time. In both of your centuries, time is outside of people. During the 19th century, people become more aware of this abstraction. They incorporate it into their lives. It’s in the 20th century that they take control of time.

And what do I mean Ed, I mean it’s no longer the railroads who determine time or those factory whistles. It’s the workers, who begin to demand a 40-hour work week. It’s the workers who demand paid time and fringe benefits.

And you know what, it’s consumers who say we put in our time at the factory. We own this other time. So you can argue till the houses come home, and I don’t know what time they come home, that it’s God’s time–

PETER: Oh, Brian.

BRIAN: –or nature’s time. What matters is in the 20th century, people begin to own that time.

PETER: Brian, I liked it better when you were just a technological determinist. Now, you’re a cheerleader. I mean come on, we don’t own time. Time owns us. That’s the way you’re integrated into a world over which well, we think we have the illusion of control. But in fact, all that time controls us.

BRIAN: Yeah. I do agree that perhaps we’ve ensnared ourselves. How do we use that time now that we are connected 24/7? Well, we do more and more work at home when we’re on our quote, “own” time. We feel if we don’t respond to an email in 30 seconds, we are remiss. So you know, Peter might be right.

ED: Well, fortunately, since I seem to be losing this argument, that’s all the time we have for this segment.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

TONY FIELD: Hello, podcast people. Tony Field here, senior producer of the show. I just wanted to remind you that if you like what you hear on today’s show, there’s a lot more where it came from– is where you’ll find us.

There’s a link to our archive at the top of the page. And if you still like us after that, you can share your thoughts with others by leaving a review on our page in the iTunes store or support us with a donation on our website.

Again, that’s at We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. Thanks for listening and see you next week.

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18th century. Today on the show, how people have sliced and diced the 24-hour day through all three of our centuries.

BRIAN: For the past few weeks, we’ve been soliciting your thoughts on the topic on our website, One of the comments came from Karin in Montpelier, Vermont. We have Karin on the line now.

Welcome to the show.

KARIN: Well, thank you very much. It’s really neat to be talking to you guys.

ED: So what do you got for us?

KARIN: Well, I noticed with dismay that we’re coming up on daylight savings time again. And I was kind of calculating up, since they’ve expanded daylight savings time, we spend 2/3 of the year in altered time now.

PETER: Un-huh.

KARIN: And I’m trying to figure out how to get comfortable with that. I guess I’m an early riser. And I like it to be a little light when I get up.


KARIN: I don’t work in an office so I don’t mind if it gets dark at 5:00 or 5:30 or 6:00.

PETER: Right.

KARIN: I’m happy to go in the kitchen and start cooking supper. And it feels fine to me.

ED: Yeah, Karin, people like you and me, who get up really early in the morning, we’re not so happy about daylight savings time. And joining us Karin, are the farmers.

KARIN: We have a lot of dairy farmers.

ED: Yeah.

KARIN: And I think the cows completely don’t understand.

BRIAN: That’s exactly right. I mean where did daylight savings time come from in the first place? I mean I don’t think it was around back in my time, where we were in perfect synchronicity with the world around us. So why did you guys invent this?

ED: Well, I think we’ve got to throw that to Peter because we know who came up with the idea for daylight savings time.

PETER: Well, it was that visionary Ben Franklin. He was all over daylight savings time.

In 1784, in the Journal of Paris, he was writing about well, the way they kept their time in Paris. And what they did is to sleep all morning because they were up all night. And Franklin did one of these calculations, a characteristic Enlightenment thing. And he’d count the number of candles that had to burn to sustain this misuse of daylight. And it would be an immense savings to the French people.

And they were going into debt at this period, badly into debt. And it led to the French Revolution. So no French Revolution, if they had had daylight savings time.

ED: And they might not have sold Louisiana to us if they wouldn’t had to pay for those candles.

PETER: Absolutely.

ED: Franklin was the first to admit that he didn’t have the means to implement daylight savings time. So Karin, let’s put it Ed out of his misery. Daylight savings time in the United States started in 1918.

And there’s one thing that consistently in the 20th century got the whole country to go on daylight savings time and that was war. It was actually the Germans who first started daylight savings time in 1916.

BRIAN: So if we were going to fight, then we had to be on the same streets.

ED: Exactly.

PETER: Because you show at a battle and they wouldn’t be there.

ED: Well quite literally, the British did go on daylight savings time, a month later or very shortly after. The real point, Karin, is that Germany, Britain, the United States, go on daylight savings time because we can save energy. It was all about well, where are we spending most of our money on energy? And a lot of it was being spent on lighting when daylight savings time was first introduced and even during World War II.

Then we have this thing called air conditioning that comes along. So that when Richard Nixon, at the height of the energy crisis in the early 1970s, calls for extended daylight savings time, it’s not so clear that we’re really saving that much energy because people have started air conditioning their homes. They come home after work and if they’re in Dallas or Houston or Jacksonville, they turn on the air. And that uses a lot of energy.

KARIN: From that point of view, we would be smarter just to get up earlier in the morning and get some work done while it’s cool, wouldn’t we?

ED: Precisely.

KARIN: And as an early riser, I would think I’d be happy to say to everybody, hey, let’s get up and start work an hour earlier.

ED: I’m with you. I’m with you.

KARIN: And that’s what we do, we just don’t call it that. We could say let’s fool ourselves by setting the clock.

PETER: Well, Karin, I going to say something very radical here that will put this in a broader perspective. And that is time is a construction. It doesn’t exist in any real sense until we’ve defined and developed the metrics, the ways of articulating it, what time is. And so, when is when, depends on social convention. It’s an agreement we make.

And that was true from the beginning of time. Not time, itself, but time as measured. And so look, we live in a democracy, Karin. You have got to organize an anti-daylight savings party.

BRIAN: Yes. It starts here.

KARIN: No. We need a better name. I might call it the symmetrical noontime party.

ED: Oh, do.

KARIN: I would arrange it so that whenever the Sun was highest, that’s noon. And let the sun rise and sun set symmetrically either side of that, just for economic reasons.

BRIAN: I can see the flag. And it’s the SNP. You got take over, all right.

KARIN: Well, thank you very much.

PETER: All right. Thank you, Karin.

BRIAN: So long, Karin. Bye.

KARIN: Bye, bye.

PETER: So we’ve got another listener comment here that came in via email. Hey, Jess.


PETER: This is Jess Engebretson, one of our producers. I believe she has that comment ready for us.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: Yeah. So this question comes from Michael in Pullman, Washington. And ironically enough, I tried to get him on the phone, but couldn’t make it happen because of the time difference. So instead, let me read you what he wrote.

PETER: Great.

JESS ENGEBRETSON: He says, I’m particularly interested in the evolving nature of public time keeping. Our university has removed all clocks, except the clock tower. Are public clocks necessary and how does our increasingly private reliance on our digital devices render public timekeeping superfluous or anachronistic? What about the lack of bells that signal the passage of time in public spaces?

ED: You know, this strikes as a great irony, Peter, that we talk about the centralization and the coordination of time. But in many ways, nothing was as centralized and coordinated as ye old medieval bell towers.

PETER: Right. Gather around folks. Find out what time it is.

ED: So I don’t know. I mean would it have been ubiquitous in colonial America? Would that have been a direct holdover? Or did our Protestant forebearers get rid of it?

PETER: No, Protestants are big in time. And there would be, in New England for instance, on the bigger churches at least, a parishioner might leave an endowment to have a clock. So yeah, there’s a central location where time is kept. And there’s a secular version of that in some big cities.

ED: So maybe what happens is that this is a kind of literacy. It’s not just a tolling of the bells that every peasant can hear. You literally have to look up and read the clock. You really have to learn how to tell time.

And it would have been something that children would have been learning earlier and earlier, right? So it’s a form of mass instruction. And I believe, over the course of the 19th century, that this would have just been more and more the case. And there would have been more and more private time keeping going along with public timekeeping,–

PETER: Along with it. Yeah, exactly.

ED: –rather than just more and more timekeeping.

BRIAN: I just kind of take issue with the premise in the question emailed to us. Because I actually think that digital time has become public time and it is publicly displayed.

I’m just struck when I walk around the grounds of UVA, at how many computer or TV screens I see. There isn’t one of them that doesn’t have the time prominently displayed. I am much more conscious of the time just walking from my lecture to my car, than I ever was 10 or 15 years ago.

PETER: I think we got time all over the place. You’re right Brian. It’s ubiquitous. What we’re missing now is place. We live in such a virtual world that we can’t locate it.

There is no place to go to where we’d all find out what time it is. So the only coordinate that we have is time. So time is everywhere. But public time and a space in which we read that time is, as Ed said–

BRIAN: And Peter, you can’t pin this one on me.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: Let’s get together and blame Ed for this.

ED: Oh, wow.

BRIAN: Because I think the beginning of the erosion of those separate public places that stood for time, whether it’s the church or city hall, was really in the late 19th century, when commercial establishments began putting clocks on corners, especially jewelry stores, department stores.

PETER: A good point.

BRIAN: And it’s the market that begins to erode that distinction that you rightly point to.

ED: You’re almost right, Brian. Where is the one place that people would have gathered in the 19th century increasingly? It’s the railroad station.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: It’s the railroad station that really brings this grid to bear. It’s where the stuff shows up. It’s where the passengers show up. It’s where you got to be ready.

So I think you’re right, Brian. Then it spreads to other commercial districts. But it becomes more public. There’s more public places where it shows, before it becomes less.

PETER: And interestingly, those public spaces you’re talking about, those train stations, those were amazing places.

BRIAN: Cathedrals.

PETER: Yeah. That’s the word that was just coming into my mind, Brian. It’s exactly right. Well, how do we sustain those places and spaces today? How about airports?

BRIAN: And yet nowhere, as a frequent denizen of airports, I can tell you this, does time have a less visceral and dependable meaning. It’s whatever, when that screen flips over, it’s whatever the airlines say the time is.

And I find that time just expands and contracts to fit whatever. It’s mechanical, it’s weather, whatever. It’s an act of God, I’m in this building trapped, divorced from all outside world.

So Michael has really got us figuring on something important. Time is taking lots of different forms around us. And we could see with our very own eyes, it seems to be disappearing and reconstituting itself all around us.

ED: And Michael, you can set your watch by that, wherever it might be.

PETER: Well, look, we’re eager to hear your thoughts on today’s topic or for that matter, on any of our upcoming topics. Have a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on.

You can share your thoughts with us there or by leaving us a phone message. Our number is 434-240-1053. You can also tweet us at BackStoryRadio.

BRIAN: When we think about clocks, there are few that produce as much suspense as those at a sporting event. One of our producers, Eric Mennel, has been on a mission to convince the rest of our staff that the most ingenious clock in American history is professional basketball’s 24-second shot clock.

ERIC MENNEL: OK, I appreciate that not everyone listening is a sports fan. But put your feelings about basketball aside for just a few minutes and listen to the raw human emotion in this.

MALE SPEAKER: 4 seconds left, double overtime, Nets looking for the win. Johnson the [INAUDIBLE].

MALE SPEAKER: 5 seconds to go. Tied at 90. Ginobili, step back. Jumper!

ERIC MENNEL: The buzzer beater, the game winning shot made just as time expires. It’s exhilarating, it’s heartbreaking, a moment of pure anxiety millions of people can share as one. And the fact that a 48 minute game of basketball can still be won in its final microseconds, is all thanks to one man and one clock, Danny Biasone and the 24-second shot clock.

Now, for the uninitiated, a shot clock is the smaller clock you sometimes see counting down in the bottom corner of the TV screen. In the NBA, when a team gets the ball, they have 24 seconds to make a shot. And if they don’t, it’s a violation. And they lose the ball,

But this hasn’t always been the case. In the early 1950s, during pro basketball’s infancy, there was no shot clock. If a team was winning and they wanted to keep their lead, they could hold onto the ball for literally 10 minutes and not do anything with it. Essentially, milk the clock.

DOLPH SCHAYES: I mean the game stopped. It was before it was stupid

ERIC MENNEL: This is Dolph Schayes. He’s in the NBA Hall Of Fame, a former player and coach, whose career spanned two eras of basketball, before the inception of the shot clock and after. He says this problem of players running time off the clock by just dribbling the ball around can really be summed up in a 1950 game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers.

DOLPH SCHAYES: There was a big game near the end of the season. And the Lakers, they had like a dynasty at that time. And so the Pistons–

ERIC MENNEL: Who were ahead–

DOLPH SCHAYES: Decided to have a slow down.

ERIC MENNEL: Meaning run the time off the clock.

DOLPH SCHAYES: Well, the game ended up 17 to 16.

ERIC MENNEL: As the final score–

DOLPH SCHAYES: The final score, or something like that. It was in the teens.

ERIC MENNEL: Actually, it was 19 to 18. Go Pistons.

DOLPH SCHAYES: And of course, the crowd was booing. I mean it became a real farce.

ERIC MENNEL: It was such a joke, that in 1953 NBC decided to forgo coverage of the NBA championship. They thought the game would be too boring.

DOLPH SCHAYES: Finally, it became a crisis. So basketball needed a rule change.

ERIC MENNEL: 1954, enter Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, the team Dolph Schayes played for

DOLPH SCHAYES: And Danny Biasone said, look, I have this formula. Why don’t we try it out.

ERIC MENNEL: By Biasone’s calculations–

DOLPH SCHAYES: Each team averaged 60 shots per game.

ERIC MENNEL: Two teams, that means 120 shots.

DOLPH SCHAYES: And the game was still 48 minutes long. And 48 minutes equates to 2,880 seconds.

ERIC MENNEL: So you divide the number of seconds in the game.


ERIC MENNEL: By the number of shots,–


ERIC MENNEL: And you get–


ERIC MENNEL: 24 seconds per shot, the 24 second shot clock. Biasone invited a bunch of league officials to Syracuse to watch a practice game using the shot clock. Schayes played in that game.

DOLPH SCHAYES: Everybody felt the 24 seconds, I mean it was a very short period of time. So when we got the ball, I said shoot it, shoot it, shoot it. And everybody thought, oh, my god, you gotta shoot the thing.

ERIC MENNEL: Another player told me, if you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes. But with this new clock, you had the opportunity to make a lot more mistakes.

The entire team’s sense of time had become compressed. The old game didn’t used to seem slow. But with this new clock, everything felt rushed.

DOLPH SCHAYES: And the owners loved it. They thought wow, this is going to be great.

ERIC MENNEL: Even in these practice games, there was a new sense of suspense. The owners felt it. And the players learn to love it too. The clock became official in the 1954-55 season.

DOLPH SCHAYES: Immediately, the scoring went up. Frankly, the 24-second clock is the perfect time. 24 seconds actually allows for a great deal of action.

MALE SPEAKER: Syacuse puts the ball in play when number 4, Dolph Schayes, wearing a cast on his left arm, taking the ball out of bounds.

ERIC MENNEL: This is audio from the 1955 NBA finals, the first year the clock was instituted. Schayes’ team, the Syracuse Nationals, were in the finals that year.

MALE SPEAKER: Other changes in the pro game is limiting the offensive team to 24 seconds of possession with the basketball. The pros believe that the paying customer would rather see a fast-moving, high-scoring game than a defensive battle between possession teams.

ERIC MENNEL: They won. The next year, the NBA finals were broadcast on national television for the first time. Scoring went up by almost 30 points a game over next few seasons. And shortly after that, attendance jumped by 40%.

DOLPH SCHAYES: That 24-second clock, that little idea that was started in 1955, revolutionized and saved the game of basketball.

ERIC MENNEL: And it did so in the cleverest of ways. By the middle of the 20th century, images of clocks counting down were ubiquitous. There were timers on washing machines and in kitchens. The Doomsday Clock was counting down the nuclear Armageddon. All sorts of new anxieties about modern life were wrapped up in the inevitability that time would do indeed expire.

And the shot clock capitalized on that. But you know what–

MALE SPEAKER: They get it to Fisher.

MALE SPEAKER: He scores. Derek Fisher scores at the at the buzzer. It will have to be reviewed.

ERIC MENNEL: Sometimes, time running out isn’t such a bad thing.

MALE SPEAKER: Oh, my god.

MALE SPEAKER: We’ve got to take a look at it. But I got to tell you, live, it looked good.

MALE SPEAKER: I thought it did too.

PETER: Eric Mennel is one of our producers.


ED: Well guys, I’ve been making jokes about running out of time for years now. But today, I can hardly bring myself to do it. I mean I don’t think I’m ever going to think about time in the same way after this show.

BRIAN: Does this mean you’re going to finally spare us that pun?

ED: Maybe.

PETER: Remember that if you’re interested in further exploring the history of time keeping in America, we got tons of links up on our website, including a 1919 letter denouncing daylight saving time as the devil’s time. You’ll find that and a whole lot more at Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Chioke l’Anson, and Eric Mennel. Allen Chen is our intern. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Our senior producer is Tony Field. And our executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

Special thanks to Thomas Allen, Colleen Stevens, Earl Lloyd and Alexis McCrossen. And thanks to our readers, Ben Purlock and Allison Quantz.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Josephine and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.