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Tech's First War on Time and Space
How the railway ushered in an age of transformation
It’s a December evening in Paddington station, north-west London, and I am waiting for information about the 19:58 to Swansea. The train’s platform number has been PENDING for ten minutes, during which time the gaggle of passengers gazing up at the little screen has swollen into a crowd. I would love to just sit down somewhere and check again later, but as the clock advances towards our moment of departure, I somehow can’t think about anything else. 19:45… 19:49… 19:53… when will they tell us the bloody platform? The frustration of the commuter herd is palpable. It occurs to me Paddington’s gorgeous art nouveau styling is best appreciated on arrival; those of us waiting to leave have no eye for such details.
You must be familiar with this feeling of anticipation. Many of us experience some version of it every day: when we rush to be ready for work on time, when we count down the minutes until the working day ends, when we struggle to get something finished before a deadline or appointment. The measurement of time, its portioning out into pieces and its gathering around decisive points, are central to modern life. Much of what we do is timetabled in advance, so that we live with at least one eye on the clock, always looking forward to the next point plotted on the temporal map.
But train stations have a special status among the many settings where this logic rules. Along with the factory, which gave rise to the practice of working in timed shifts, the railway was the cradle of modern time. When you look ahead to your next train, you are also staring back into the technological matrix from which our understanding of time, and of much else besides, first emerged.
Before the coming of trains, time was a local affair, based on the position of the sun. Bristol was about ten minutes behind London, and someone travelling between the two places would need to adjust his clock as he went. This was not so inconvenient when the fastest reliable mode of travel, the stagecoach, covered about six miles per hour. It was only in 1840 that Britain’s Great Western Railway introduced a single, standardised time across geographically distant towns and cities. Station clocks initially used an extra minute hand to show both local time and “railway time.” The latter became “London time” as more places adopted it, and eventually, the official time zone we call Greenwich Mean Time.
Railways needed to standardise time to avoid confusion and accidents, but in the process a more profound shift had taken place. Time had been transformed from a natural phenomenon into a human artefact. Its purpose was to coordinate human activities across large areas, of which the railway network itself was an obvious example. Its other purpose was to provide a framework for managing, planning and optimising the productive potential of new technologies, such as a steam locomotive’s ability to cover huge distances in a predictable number of hours and minutes. In this way, the modern time represented by the railway also transformed the meaning of space. Whereas the other end of England had once been like a foreign country, it was increasingly possible, as railways expanded across five continents in the 1840s, to organise the movement of people and goods on the other side of the globe.
These radical changes of perspective belong to the dawn of industrial capitalism, but it was the railway, more than any other technology, which introduced people to them, just as the smartphone has drawn us into the new social and psychological experiences of the virtual age. Indeed, the growth of digital technology might be our only way of appreciating just how transformative the railway was. As the novelist William Thackeray observed in 1860, “we who have lived before Railways were made belong to another world.”
The railway was one of the modern era’s first truly revolutionary technologies, in the sense that it was at the core, both practically and symbolically, of a whole new mode of existence. Its impact came from networks and connectivity, from the collapsing of space and time, and from the new forms of commerce and control it enabled. Our own digital revolution is in many ways a distant echo of it.
As Stuart Hylton writes, “the railways widened people’s horizons to a degree that is almost impossible for us to understand today.” Gone were the days when people might assume that their entire lives would unfold in the town or village of their birth. Not only was there a good chance they would move to a city to earn a wage; travel now became, for the first time, a form of leisure available to even poorer Britons. “There are thousands of our readers,” the London Times stated in 1850, “who in the last three years have travelled more and seen more than in all their previous life taken together.”
Railways transformed the shape of the world and what people did in it; without them, there could have been no industrial civilisation. Trains supplied urban industries with raw materials, fuel, and a labour force stripped from the countryside. They took finished products to ports to be shipped, and collected them from ports across the water. They delivered the enormous quantities of food demanded by booming urban populations. And just as they allowed cities to become industrial zones dotted with slums, they gave rise to the suburb as the new setting for middle- and upper-class life.
The arrival of this revolutionary technology evoked a range of responses we might recognise today. One was disbelief: “What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked the Quarterly Review in March 1825, “than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” Another was financial speculation, as the railway produced the first genuine tech bubble. At one point during the “mania” of the 1840s, the money tied up in railway investment was equivalent to almost seven percent of Britain’s economic output. When the bubble duly burst, some 2,000 miles of planned track were abandoned, and countless debtors driven to exile or suicide. Finally, there were the panics. People worried about catastrophic damage to nature, farmland and the livelihoods bound up with horses. Among the rumoured medical hazards of riding in a train were infertility, birth defects, premature aging, psychotic episodes and blindness.
As an agent of sweeping change, the railway also attracted more profound forms of resentment and regret. Connecting provincial areas to urban centres did not just bring opportunities, it destroyed local ways of life and homogenised culture. In one scene from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, set in his native Wessex, Hardy’s protagonist asks a girl to visit the cathedral with him. She suggests they go to the railway station in stead: “That’s the centre of town life now. The cathedral has had its day!” To which Hardy’s Jude responds, “How modern you are!” Leo Tolstoy was another skeptic, commenting that “the railway is to travel as a whore is to love.” For Tolstoy, rail transport was emblematic of a quickened modern lifestyle that favoured convenience and superficial appetites above any capacity for deeper appreciation. Little wonder the instrument of Anna Karenina’s suicide is a train.
What these authors resented was the emergence of the mass society we now take for granted. The idea of the nation as a place with its own shared identity and culture became more of a reality once citizens could travel across its territory. National campaigns and debates became more significant as steam transport enabled the rapid diffusion of ideas, in part through the wider circulation of newspapers. So the railway was also a kind of media revolution, especially since the telegraph – the first technology to allow near-instantaneous communication – began as a messaging system along its tracks.
But as we have learned again in the Internet era, networks do not just allow the spread of ideas, they also allow centralised control over bigger domains. Railways, especially when combined with telegraphy, became the sinews of empires. Many of those empires were commercial, such as the retail chains that now opened for the first time, along with national banks and foreign trading operations. Others were political: it’s no accident that the late-19th and early-20th centuries were the heyday of Europe’s imperial expansion around the world, for it would have been impossible to administer such vast and far-flung territories without trains and telegraph wires. The same could be said for the growth of the United States in this period.
Arguably though, the railway’s most momentous impact lay in its symbolic power. There was no more striking demonstration of humanity’s growing potential to design the world to its own ends. With its unfathomable speed and distances, its vast networks of iron rails, station buildings, embankments and tunnels, the railway testified to the arrival of modern homo faber, the human being as technological master of its environment. Such dazzling evidence encouraged people to view all things as changeable, and to regard change as unstoppable.
And this too was ultimately about the meaning of time. As Francis O’Gorman argues in his book Forgetfulness, it was through revolutions such as the railway that, during the 19th century, “transformation seeped into modern consciousness as part of what it meant to be alive.” The experience of dramatic change created the “citizen of modernity,” who is always focused on the future in anticipation of new developments; the same posture, O’Gorman points out, as the rail passenger scanning a timetable for the next departure. Nothing has been more transformative than this, the acceptance of transformation itself as part of the normal course of life.
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