When we set back our clocks this fall, some may have considered it an annoyance or a convenience or wondered how the custom got started, but it’s a safe bet few thought of daylight saving time as a political issue. Yet in 1919 its continuation–it had been instituted the previous year as a wartime measure–touched off an acrimonious congressional debate.

Rural congressmen opposed the time change as a benefit only to city dwellers who wanted the extra daylight in the evening for play and frivolity, and who thought nothing of interfering, as one Iowan put it, “with the natural order of things as regulated by the rising and setting of the sun.” Representative Edward King of Illinois, a leading opponent of daylight saving (from downstate, of course) attributed the measure to “that intangible professorial influence which we all recognize as occupying a sort of dictatorial attitude during the war,” and charged “the Professoriate” with having forgotten in “their theoretical air navigation both God and nature.” As such expostulations reveal, the dispute was part of the postwar revolt against modernity in this country, a revolt that also gave birth to fundamentalism, opposition to the teaching of evolution, and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The opposition was so strong that Congress twice passed bills to end daylight saving time, both of which were vetoed by President Wilson. Finally, on August 21, 1919, Congress overrode his second veto, and a national daylight saving policy was not reinstituted until the Second World War.

This sort of social history is the aim of Michael O’Malley’s recent Keeping Watch: A History of American Time. Ranging from the 17th to the 20th century, it looks at “how American ideas about time and its authority changed,” focusing, O’Malley says, “on how we built the web of interconnected, standardized clock time that structures our lives and labor, and how it altered the way we think about ourselves and our society.” It’s a process the author sees as neither a simple matter of course nor wholly beneficent. His emphasis, in fact, is on the sinister side of this development–the ways in which the rise of clock time has mirrored the growing domination of American life by large corporations–and he shows a lot of sympathy for manifestations of popular resistance to the clock’s growing authority, even when that opposition might ordinarily be dismissed as reactionary.

O’Malley’s treatment of the conflict over daylight saving time exemplifies his approach. It would have been easy to ridicule those who objected to the measure as ignorant obstructionists, and many did so at the time. But as O’Malley points out, the change did create real hardships for farmers, and probably for the less affluent members of the working class. City dwellers laughed at the farmer’s complaint that he couldn’t change the time when his cows gave milk. Why couldn’t he simply milk the cows at six o’clock daylight saving time instead of five o’clock standard time? Since the two clock times are the same sun time, this would preserve the cow’s sense of time. The problem is that the farmer may have set his milking time according to when the milk train leaves the local depot. If the train leaves at seven, then milking the cows at six doesn’t leave sufficient time to get to the depot. But if you try to milk the cows at five, daylight saving time, they won’t be ready to let down their milk, since then it’s only four standard time.

Many workers, too, were adversely affected by the change. The United Mine Workers, for example, came out against daylight saving because its members might have to rise as early as 3:30, sun time, and make their way to work in total darkness. In addition, O’Malley points out, though the early beginning to the workday meant the benefit of hours of daylight remaining after work, “with the new time, the blessing became a curse as the extra daylight, and the noises of summer recreation, often intruded into the hours for sleep.”

Overall, O’Malley concludes, “Daylight saving most benefited those segments of society that were strictly governed by clocks and clock time. It gave them extra daylight for recreation in a period that saw a virtual explosion in recreation and leisure time pursuits. . . . The resistance to daylight saving, and the law’s eventual repeal . . . points to a stubborn and lingering hostility to clock authority, to a refusal to abandon natural models for organizing life’s work.”

The debate over daylight saving is only the closing chapter, however, of O’Malley’s story, which begins with the growing conflict between clock time and sun time in the opening decades of the 19th century. The clash is well illustrated by the situation in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1826, after the town had had a clock installed for the first time in the town-hall tower. Built by veteran clock maker Eli Terry, the new instrument seemed to perform perfectly, but as time went on it seemed to be running noticeably slower than the other public timekeeper, the Yale College clock. Once it had fallen about 15 minutes behind Yale’s, the Terry clock appeared to speed up, until it ran almost 15 minutes ahead of its rival, at which point it began slowing down, comparatively, and the cycle began again. One or the other clock, it would seem, must be wrong–must be broken or defective. But in fact neither was faulty; rather, they were each built to operate according to a different definition of time.

The Yale clock was a rather unusual instrument, constructed to reproduce solar time, in which noon is calculated to occur at the moment when the center of the sun is directly over the observer’s longitudinal meridian. But solar time is not constant; the length of the solar day (noon to noon) varies throughout the year, both because the earth moves with varying speeds in its orbit and because it tilts on its axis. It’s very easy, of course, to show solar time on a sundial (in fact it’s impossible not to show it), but it’s a complex procedure to make a mechanical clock reproduce these variations. So clocks have almost always been made to run at a constant rate that shows, as Terry’s clock did, the mean or average time–a time that coincides with the solar time only four days a year, otherwise running up to 16 minutes behind or 14 minutes ahead of sun time.

The discrepancy touched off a controversy of several months in New Haven. Some outraged citizens objected that Terry’s clock did not tell “true time,” as regulated by God and nature’s timekeeper, the sun, and so should be discarded. (To understand this position, it has to be remembered that clocks and other mechanical timepieces were still relatively rare, although their use was burgeoning.) In this still largely rural environment, people mostly told time by the sun and by the progression of their tasks, just as they marked the passage of the year through the sequence of seasons and the work appropriate to each. And this “natural” time, O’Malley says, was regarded as having its source in, and belonging to, God. American disputes about time from the beginning seem to have been framed as a conflict of the religious and the secular.

It was that great mechanical institution, the railroad, transformer of so many aspects of life in the 19th century, that brought the collision of “natural” and mechanical time to center stage. As the railroads gathered steam in the 1840s and ’50s, they soon became demons for punctuality, issuing detailed schedules and supplying highly accurate company watches to conductors, engine drivers, and switch and bridge tenders. Once locomotives were perfected and ran steadily and reliably, the new government-supported observatories, which could compute scientifically exact astronomical time, and the telegraph, which could transmit time signals almost instantaneously, made it possible for the railroads to keep to very strict, precisely timed schedules. But there was a problem.

Each town or city (like New Haven with its two clocks) kept its own local time, calculated with reference to the sun at that particular geographical location. This meant that the traveler on an east-west journey of any length passed through a whole succession of local times. But a railroad, naturally enough, would draw up its schedules according to its own time standard–usually the time of the city in which the line originated. When two railroad lines met, however, or shared a track, the different methods of timekeeping clashed: pity the poor passenger who had to figure out whether a connection could be made between a train arriving in Pittsburgh at 2 New York time and one leaving Pittsburgh at 2:05 Cincinnati time! These sorts of problems led to the publication of bound collections of railroad and steamship schedules, by means of which the traveler could painstakingly reconcile such discrepancies. In the long run, though, the railroads pushed for greater and greater standardization –and eventually succeeded in creating the standard time zones more or less as we know them today.

O’Malley recounts the whole operation in some detail: the people involved in pushing it forward, the bureaucratic wrangling, the confusion and local resistance that preceded and followed the day of the time zones’ adoption–Sunday, November 18, 1883, “the day of two noons.” (The change was set for noon, which meant that noontime occurred once on the old local time, then again after clocks had been set back to agree with the new standard time.) In this process, O’Malley says, “railroad time reorganized public time to suit the needs of commerce.” And standard time zones were only the beginning.

O’Malley claims that the idea of standardizing time “epitomized new ideas about time’s nature, ideas that in turn contributed to a major reorganization of work, leisure, and the individual’s relation to society.” The new consciousness of time manifested itself in a new emphasis on strict punctuality, with promptness becoming a paramount virtue not only at work but in private life and at public events. Between 1870 and the early decades of the 20th century, as Americans bought huge numbers of clocks and watches and tardiness became a sin (at least among the middle class), program clocks, which would synchronize all the clocks in a building and ring bells or trigger machines at certain intervals, came into widespread use in schools and factories, along with workplace time clocks. (IBM’s monopoly on these devices gave the company its start.)

According to Keeping Watch, this general trend “made machine precision, and machine discipline, the prototype [that] model employees were forced to emulate in their daily work.” The epitome of this attitude was the system of “scientific management” pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor in the early part of this century. Taylor is famous for arming himself with a stopwatch and timing particular jobs, eliminating what he considered waste motions to arrive at an efficient time for a given task; management would thereafter hold workers to that time. O’Malley maintains, however, that Taylor’s real contribution to what’s been called the “second factory system”–the assembly-line system–was his method of reorganizing management, reducing individual managers’ autonomy so that tasks could be coordinated on a strict schedule under the authority of a central planning office. The same mania for efficiency and order through timing and scheduling invaded all areas of life, including the home, via the new discipline of home economics. Obviously it’s still very much with us–and in fact much of the vaunted “Japanese style” of production seems to represent a further refinement of such methods.

The subject is fascinating. Indeed, one wishes that O’Malley had delved a bit deeper into the ways in which our sense of time has been shaped by the presumed necessities of modern industrial society. In the end, though, he seems content merely to have shown that “the notion of ‘efficiency’–the final justification industrial society could offer for the changes it brought about–could not have insinuated itself into virtually every walk of life without standardized time.” But is this notion of efficiency really necessary to technological development? Could we operate with a different sense of time and still get the necessary work done? Although O’Malley suggests at the end of his book that “it is possible to imagine an industrial society governed by priorities drawn from natural cycles and biological time,” he does not explore that possibility.

Throughout much of the book, O’Malley seems to hold up as an alternative only the older sense of “natural” time, the framework broken apart by the new ideal of efficiency based on mechanistic clock time. He often betrays considerable sympathy for those who mourned the loss of the old, of “time linked to nature, to the sun, to a specific place and to that place alone,” who have rebelled against “the assumption that time was arbitrary, changeable, susceptible to the whims of the railroads or defined by mere commercial expediency.”

O’Malley does recognize, at times, that the old rural order was not some leisurely utopia. “Farm and house work,” he points out, “spurred by Protestant theology and Biblical warnings against idle hands, demanded constant effort. Simply because no mechanical clocks oversaw their activities does not mean that Americans ignored time’s passage; in fact, time often presented itself in terms of a sacred duty.” Likewise he notes that “standardized time marked no advance or decline in the extent of freedom or individuality.” Rather than an imposition of authority, “it represented a reconstruction of governing authority.” Those are true and important points–but much of the time O’Malley seems to forget them in his eagerness to endorse protests against the domination of life by corporations and commercialism.

Worse, the author often seems to accept at face value the idea that older ways represented a more “natural” society operating in accordance with a “natural” time frame. Although common, this notion is a delusion. Of course an agrarian society is more tied to solar time than our own, and the sun is an obvious natural object; so the older society is more immediately and apparently connected with a marker taken directly from nature. Today the most accurate timekeepers rely on the oscillation of quartz crystals (which are checked, in the atomic clocks at national observatories, by cesium-beam resonators); in other words, we rely on processes that are just as much a part of the natural world as the apparent motion of the sun. The difference is that the oscillation of crystals is more regular and more minute, and must undergo more technological processing to be useful for timekeeping.

And in any case, does relying on the sun make an older society more natural? Think about it: a traditional society, even a “primitive” one (which the American settlers certainly never had), is as much a human creation as modern industrial–or contemporary “postindustrial”–society. Even in a Stone Age culture, social and technological creations would have separated us from any pure world of nature.

Then, too, O’Malley’s nostalgia for a supposedly more natural past has also apparently blinded him to the ways modern capitalist-industrial society has generated its own forms of revolt against mechanical, commercial time. Look at 20th-century art in any of its forms–literature, the visual arts, and especially film: all have as a prominent theme the subverting and rearranging of conventional time. (One chapter of Keeping Watch is devoted mostly to film, but O’Malley concentrates solely on the ways the medium has been used as a means of social control, by industrial-efficiency experts or in the form of propaganda films.) Or consider 20th-century science, which has challenged, in the theory of relativity and elsewhere, our standard temporal framework at its very base. These would appear to be more real and progressive alternatives to lockstep, commodified time than a mythical “return to nature.”

Keeping Watch has its flaws, then–in fact it has big problems, stemming from its author’s attitude and approach. One-sided and incomplete as it is, it can’t be what its subtitle proclaims it: “a history of American time.” But it does recount some very interesting strands of that history, and in the process sparks reflection on the modern sense of time, how it came to be, and how it might be different.

Keeping Watch: A History of American Time by Michael O’Malley, Viking, $19.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Pablo Montes O’Neill.