It’s About Time


Philip Liebson


Chicago Literary Club


October 4, 2004




















      Time as a concept is relative, not only in its attributes in the physical world but also in the mind of the individual. The concept of time in our universe is till being investigated but there is strong evidence that time is dependent upon space and motion. Through the ages, efforts have been attempted in versatile ways to document the passage of time. Writers have ingeniously modified time. However time is measured or recorded, it is subject to our personal rhythms and moods.






                 TS Eliot was a player with time. In  the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, he expanded time:

 “…indeed there will be time…there will be time, there will be time…

   time for you and time for me,

   And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

  And a hundred visions and revisions…

  In a minute there is time

  For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse…”

                 In  Four Quartets  he elaborates further:

       “Time present and time past

      Are both perhaps present in time future,

      And time future contained in time past.

      If all time is eternally present

      All time is unredeemable”.

               If you close your eyes and think back to an experience thirty, forty or even 50 years ago you can sense a complete dissolution of time – you are there. You can perceive the scene in amazing detail, not only the central focus but perhaps the peripheral views of buildings, trees, streetlights. In some way you have been transported through time. Ray Bradbury, in Dandelion Wine, the novel about an eight year old boy’s Summer in Waukegan (or Green Town in the novel) in 1928, has him listening to the experience of an elderly man who years before saw an accidental death. In an epiphany, the boy saw the elder as a time machine to the past – he could go back 60 years. The boy himself could return 8 years into the past. In this way, we have an immediate means of transfer back to any scene over many years that are susceptible to recall.

        Of course we cannot literally go back in time – theoretically time does not exist, according to some of the latest precepts of physics, or if it does exist, it can vary with the speed of a moving body. If it does exist, it must have had a beginning. Of course, the answer to the question of when time began could be 1923, but that would be Time with a capital T – incidentally, the capital funds for the newsmagazine originated right here in Chicago. In a more general sense, time was supposed to begin with the Big Bang – but even here, there is some theoretical consideration that time began before then. That the big bang, the bursting apart of our universe from a small, almost infinitesimally small clustering of matter was actually a repetition of an endless cycle in which two multidimensional membranes of matter, or universes,  cruising through a higher-dimensional space in parallel collided, converting their kinetic energy into matter and radiation. The collision produced the big bang and the universes rebounded at a rapid rate and slowly decelerated, eventually stopping and approaching each other again, as will continue through eternity. For those of you who are relieved that our universe will never disappear but act as one of a group of cymbals, potentially crashing into each other and rebounding back, I hope this has  fulfilled your evening. For you other fatalists who have heard that, at 13.7 billion years, our universe is half way to extinction, I can only recommend that you set your alarm clocks to 1 year before the end to enjoy the last remaining year. Perhaps time will slow down then.

      We all are aware of the passage of time yet we cannot see it- of course we can see a pendulum moving, hear the ticking of a clock, see numbers changing at a constant rate, perceive the passage of the day, and see the imprint of time on the faces and bodies of others depending upon the varied intermittency of observation. But we cannot stop it, just as King Canute could not hold back the waves. Well, that is not entirely true- we can go back in our minds and perhaps explore the changes in our environment. The passage of time does erase the experience of familiar things. Glass milk bottles give way to cardboard cartons, the iceman no longer cometh, caps and leggings are no longer de rigeur, nor are pinafores and silk stockings.

        If you are a writer and wish to evoke a distant time period for a reader, I believe it is necessary to bring him back in stages. I have always felt that one cannot evoke a distant era without incrementally peeling back the layers of time- something like acclimating yourself to descending into deep water. Such acclimatization involves awareness of small things. JC Furnas, who wrote several books on the Social History of the United States in the 1970’s, brought the reader back to 1914 in terms of such prosaic qualities such as the hemispherical scoop of ice cream replacing the more generous conical kind, the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, and in the Pullman car, the porter’s welcoming rite- “putting the passenger’s hat on a paper bag” and the parting rite - “dusting him off, neck to heels”, because of the gritty black soot from the locomotive.

     Of course, motion pictures and theater can provide some insight into the past- however, you will notice that there is an artificiality, a stiltedness in portrayals of a past time, say the 1930’s, that cannot reflect contemporary movies of the period – in current portrayals, the cars and people parade past almost self consciously, the clothing is worn as a costume, the sidewalks are too neat, the subtleties of contemporary argot are absent. However, there is nothing artificial in your memories of these earlier days.

         As to the differences in behavior between eras, this can only be demonstrated by having a contemporary attempt to fit into the environment, as in the 1929 play, Berkeley Square, or the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. One of the most incisive statements in this regard comes from JC Furnas’s book describing what one would experience encountering a distant ancestor from the 16th century. He quotes an antiquarian of Knickerbocker descent who told a historical association that most of the early Dutch settlers “could neither read nor write…a wild, uncouth, enough and most of the time a drunken crowd…dressed in skins… not far removed from the wild Indians around them. If [they] this moment were to enter this room every man here who boasts of his Dutch descent…would make a wild dash for the door…squawking in terror”.

       In Berkeley Square, Peter Standish, living in a Queen Anne period house in London. circa 1928, curious about the family, is transported back from the morning room to a more sedate time, 1784, in the same morning room . After spending a brief time in the eighteen century confines of polite society he is moved to exclaim” God! What a Period! Dirt, disease cruelly, smells!. .. God, how the eighteenth century stinks!... And I was in love with the past”.

     In the novel Time and Again, Jack Finney transports a 1960’s illustrator back to the New York of the 1880’s. He finds himself on Fifth Avenue. “ This street was tiny! Narrow! Cobbled!...” As for the people: “I looked out at them, first with awe, then with delight; at the bearded cane-swinging men in tall shiny silk hats”. He admires the parade of carriages. “These weren’t just black. There were marvelous rich maroons among them, a deep olive-green, and one had a magnificent body of canary yellow, the wheels and fenders shiny black…and the horses pranced.” Later on he goes on to describe a conversation at the boarding house in which he now lives and unfortunately starts discussing his trip to Czechoslovakia. Unlike Peter Standish, he grows to accommodate to the older world and decides to remain there. “ I looked around the world I was in… The air was still clean, the rivers flowed fresh, … and the first of the terrible corrupting wars still lay decades ahead”.  

      According to current astrophysical speculations, it may be possible to travel back in time through a wormhole, that is, a hypothetical space warp consisting of an entrance hole and an exit hole in the universe. Since the tube of the wormhole extends through hyperspace rather than normal space, going through it could hook up with a distant part of the universe at an earlier time. This is an extension of the laws of relativity. Or put in more prosaic terms:

                            “There once was a lady named bright

                            Who traveled much faster than light

                            She sped up one day

                            In a relative way

                            And came out the previous night.”

The foundation of some of this speculation comes from experiments in the late 19th century by Albert Michelson (of the University of Chicago) and mathematical speculations by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century leading to the theory that increasing speed slows down time and contracts space. The Irish physicist George F. Fitzgerald in the late 19th century is responsible for the speculation about the contraction of space. This led to another prosaic limerick:

                            “There once was a fencer named Fisk,

                            Whose fencing was exceedingly brisk

                            So fast was his action

                            The Fitzgerald Contraction

                            Reduced his epee to a disk.”

    Theoretically, we all live in separate space time modules dependent upon our motions relative to one another. If I walk slightly faster than you, my body condenses infinitesimally and my time slows down relative to yours. Therefore, running at nearly the speed of light will make time pass slower but make you shorter but increase your body density- leading to the proposition that aerobic exercise of this sort may lengthen your life but relative to someone standing still make you stockier.

       I have cited some literature about time travel. However, as far as I know, there is only one work in which the protagonist actually lives his life from death to birth in that order- Martin Amis’s “Time’s Arrow”. His whole life is depicted backward, he goes to sleep in the morning in a rumpled bed and ends up at night getting out of a bed that is magically fresh with pressed sheets, etc. Of course, the descriptions were in sentences with the verbs usually following the nouns. However, it could also have been possible to reverse the sentence structure as well. As far as I know, this has been done only in Time magazine – if you don’t believe me read the 1936 New Yorker parody by Wolcott Gibbs on the Timestyle of Henry Luce – “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”.

     There are of course ways to control time. Joshua made the sun stop in the heavens, but we can turn back the clock literally. Daylight Saving Time, or Summer Time, allows us to use less energy. Of course, it works best the closer you are to the North Pole, where Summer-Winter daylight differences are most varied. According to the US Department of Transportation, Daylight Saving Time trims the electricity usage by a significant but small amount, about 1%. As with many other thoughts, the idea was attributed initially to Benjamin Franklin while he was in Paris in 1784. Did Peter Standish also visit him, one wonders? At the time, Franklin was 78 years old and was awakened rather early on a summer’s day at 6 am with light pouring through his window. He had been playing chess most of the night and at that time of his life, was used to getting up around noon, rather like Winston Churchill. In other words, he no longer emulated poor Richard in the advice of early to be early to rise. Thinking about this, he reasoned that if people get up much earlier, like 7 hours earlier, they could save money on candles. Although this is somewhat the equivalent of shifting the clock, he did not actually recommend it, but is given credit for the general idea.

     Early in the 20th century, a London builder named William Willett published a pamphlet “Waste of Daylight”, proposing advancing clocks 20 minutes incrementally on each of 4 Sundays in April and retarding them by a similar amount on four Sundays in September. A bill was introduced to Parliament to this effect in 1909 but was met with ridicule. However, during World War I it was put into effect after a similar measure had been enacted in Germany. There was, of course, considerable opposition to the enactment. The Royal Meteorological Society continued to use Greenwich Mean Time for measuring tides. Some parks in London closed at dusk, some closed by the clock. In Edinburgh, a ceremonial gun was fired at 1 PM summer time, while a ball on top of the Nelson Monument fell at 1 o’clock Greenwich Mean Time.

     Even the parliamentarians expressed concerns. Lord Balfour considered that on the night the clocks are set back, “supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock (the time of setting back the clock)…the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. Such an alteration might conceivably affect the properties and titles in that House.” Who would have believed that Daylight Saving Time would affect primogeniture?

     This quandary also brings to mind the paradox of time travel. Suppose you went back in time and performed an act that prevented you from being born, like matricide? Well, that’s one problem that will not be resolved by the time of the upcoming elections.

      The United States adopted Daylight Saving Time in 1918-1919. It then became a local option and was continued in some states such as Rhode Island and some cities such as New York and Chicago. During World War II, a year round Daylight Saving Time, called “War Time” was instituted from February 1942 through the end of September 1945. The UK went even further, using “double summer time”, extending summer dusk till close to midnight. The next time a federal law was passed was in 1973 when, because of the energy crisis, daylight saving time was implemented from January 1974 through April 1975 (remember?). Since 1986, Daylight Saving Time extends from early April to late October, usually ending just a day or 2 before Halloween so that the children will have less daylight to go trick or treating.

       At present most states are either homogeneously on Daylight Saving Time or Standard Time during the summer. One notable exception is our neighbor, Indiana. There are 3 different time zones in the Hoosier state, some remaining on Eastern Standard Time all year long, some on Central Standard Time and Daylight time, and five around Cincinnati that use Eastern Standard and Eastern Daylight. If you are interested in time hopping during the Summer, Indiana is the place.

     Before Daylight Saving Time there was Standard Time, which we take for granted. Suppose there was no Standard Time. Each town would go by the sun and when the sun is overhead it is 12 Noon. That may pose a problem for railroads or any transportation in which timetables must be used. In fact, the tight schedules that telegraphy imposed on railroads finally forced the creation of time zones.

     Britain set the standard, so to speak, primarily because of problems of railway timetables. London time was first adopted by the Great Western Railway in 1840. By 1855, after the railways all adapted Greenwich Mean Time, most public clocks in Britain were set to this time. However, the great clock on Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford, was fitted with two minute hands, one for GMT and one for local time. It took another 25 years before the legal system final adapted GMT.

        In the United States, local time was predominant throughout most of the 19th century. However, the Harvard College Observatory instituted, in 1851, the world’s first public time service distributed over telegraph wires. As with Britain, the railroads were also responsible for leading the adaptation of Standard Time in the United States, although an amateur astronomer, William Lambert, had presented to congress a recommendation for time meridians as early as 1809. It was almost three-quarters of a century later, in 1883, that the railroads adopted Standard Time. Detroit kept local time, however, until 1905. A few years before then, a faction derisive of the continuing local time attempted to erect a sundial in front of the city hall-but this was referred to the Committee on Sewers and never saw the light of day.

    It was only in 1918 that Standard Time zones was enacted by Congress. Even recently, some of the time zones have changed. Detroit, Cincinnati and even Pittsburgh were in the Central Time zone until well into the 1960’s.


     But, let’s start at the beginning, not the big bang, but the nomadic or agricultural communities millennia ago when religious ceremonies and the harvesting of crops required some consistent measurement of time cycles. Assuming that the sun is out most of the time, as in the Mediterranean regions, the use of a shadow stick with a series of pebbles in place at the end of the shadow could serve as a primitive sundial. The position of the shadow could indicate the passage of time during the day. If concentric semicircles of pebbles were placed in a permanent position, the time of the year could also be ascertained.

      The measurement of daytime hours did not change much from the principles of measurement used in ancient Egypt. Sundials were still used in Europe to .a large extent that between 500 and 1500 AD. These sundials were placed above doors. The day was subdivided by four lines, or “tides” of the sunlit day.  With the use of the sundial, the passing of a full day could be measured. Since the one fixed location on the sundial from day to day as the sun passed overhead was the equivalent of 12 noon, this instant could be used as the anchor for diurnal passage of time. In fact, early clocks were adjusted to the “gold standard” of the sundial. 

         The most accurate early devices were sun-clocks consisting of holes chipped out of large rocks, with the hour lines converging at the base of the stick. A water clock could be used to determine a fixed amount of time. All you need is a bowl filled with water in which a smaller bowl is placed with a small hole in its bottom. When the bowl fills with water and sinks, time’s up. You can determine various time periods by different sizes of the smaller bowl or the hole.

      The principle of clocks and watches has been in use for at least 5000-6000 years. The purpose of a clock is to maximize the use of time during a diurnal period. This has evolved to such an extent that a stopwatch is now used to evaluate speed in seconds. Subatomic particles now appear and disappear in thousandths or even millionths of a second and this observation must be based upon the most meticulous timing. This leads one to think of the possibility that our perception of events is based upon our visual awareness primarily. Is it possible that we are blocking out many events that occur in milliseconds or shorter periods because of the limitations of our senses? If we slowed down time in relation to our senses, our perceptual world would be quite different. We see this in slow motion segments in sports or art movies. Of course, even here, there are only 16 frames a second. What about the appearance of 16,000 frames a second- what details would be seen? If you saw only one of every 16,000 frames and each millisecond was converted into a second, the pictures would appear discontinuous. We would miss events that took place over several hundred milliseconds. On the other hand, our perceptions are too rapid and our lives too short to see the rising and decay of mountains, the development and disappearance of oceans, the shifting of continents. Over a short period, however, time lapse cameras can show the rapid evolution and motion of clouds.      

               Ancient clocks were in the form of obelisks, tall four sided tapered monuments, developed in Egypt around 3500 BC. Similar to a sundial, they used the shadow cast by the sun to subdivide the day into 2 parts. The obelisk was really an elongated sundial.  By the time of the Ancient Greeks, alarm clocks were developed with whistling mechanical birds. In China, around 1088 AD, a highly complex mechanism was developed using a 21 foot tall water clock. During each hour, a globe automatically rotated. Five doors were opened at different parts of the hour affording a view of an individual statue that appeared with the ringing of a bell, or a banged gong, or an inscribed time of day.

               The invention of the pendulum considerably increased the accuracy of clocks. It was first built by Christian Huygens, a Dutch scientist in 1656. The oscillations of the pendulum reduced error to less than 1 minute a day and eventually to less than 10 seconds a day. In addition, Huygens the following year developed a balance wheel and spring assembly which allowed 17th century watches to keep an accuracy of time to 10 minutes a day.          

          Several centuries later, the pendular clock achieved an accuracy of a hundredth of a second a day and the pendulum clock became the accepted standard in most astronomical observatories.

           Of course, clocks became more accurate but this accuracy was initially met with skepticism. In Chester, England a clockmaker insisted that his clocks were right and the Sun was wrong. His cottage was later memorialized with the inscription: “Here’s the cottage of Peter, that cunning old fox, Who kept the sun right by the time of his clocks”.  

      Well into the 19th century, the motto Carpe Diem was carved on sundials and engraved in clocks – seize the day! As to the need for clock winding -

      “There was a man, he had a clock, his name was Mr. Mears

        Every night he wound that clock for five and forty years,

         And when at last that clock turned out an eight day clock to be

        A madder man than Mr. Mears, I never hope to see!”

     Waterclocks and hourglasses work on the same principle, of a fixed time period independent of clock time. With sand, coarseness will wear away the glass and will prevent a constant rate of flow. Hourglasses can be used to time three minute eggs but were used as late as 1942 to measure the heating time of steel in an annealing oven at Allegheny Steel.

         Both quartz clocks and atomic clocks work on the principle of elicited resonances that produce a constant frequency which can be transformed electronically into a timepiece. Microwave resonances from the atom of the element cesium, for example, oscillate 9,192,631,770 times a second. Converted into use as a timepiece, the cesium clock maintains an accuracy with a degree of error of 1 millionth of a second per year.    

         Beyond the day, time is measured by calendars. Archaeological finds in Europe indicated that over 20,000 years ago, scratched lines on sticks and bones, or gouged holes were used as ancient calendars. The ancient site at Stonehenge was built over 4000 years ago and the alignment of the stones have been considered to measure seasonal or celestial changes, but more likely to determine the time of year for rituals, and used for crop planting, harvests or festivals.

         The term calendar comes from the term calends, the first of each month for the Romans. It was the Julian Calendar, introduced in 46 BC, that fixed the year at 365 days with an extra day every fourth year. Calends meant “the coming together”, referring to a congregation of sacred priests who would inform the people of which days of the month were to be considered for festivals. The Ancient Roman Calendar consisted of three anchors. In addition to Kalends there was Nones, usually the 5th of the month, and Ides, usually the 13th.The other dates were referred to these three anchors. For example, today, October 4th, would be, in English, “the 3rd day before Nones (which falls on October 7th). The Romans calculated a week as nine days. In was only in 321 AD that Constantine adopted a seven day calendar. In Latin, Dies:  Solis, Lunae, Martis, Mercuii, Ioves, Veneres, Saturni . We have since replaced some with Norse gods Tiu, the Germanic god of War, Wotan, and Frigg, the Scandinavian goddess of love.

     It is intriguing also that the original Roman calendar was divided into 10 months or variable lengths- An additional two months were later added but  March 15th, was maintained as the beginning of the year.  It has been generally accepted that Julius Caesar established January as the year’s start. There is no documented evidence, however, that he had any misgivings about March 15th. Others have considered Pope Gregory VII as the initiator. Certainly, well into the medieval period, late March was considered the turn of the year.

     Although the origins of names of the most of the current calendar months are obvious, either derived from Roman numbers, or various deities, there is some question about the origins of April, May and June. April, for example, may have been derived from Aphrodite, or possibly aperire (to open). Maia was the Roman goddess of Spring and Juno the goddess of marriage and the well-being of women. She was the wife as well as the sister of Jupiter. There was an inter-calendar month, Intercalaris, between February and March, abolished by Caesar, possibly because February was the month of purification, and March the time for resumption of war. As they say, Time Marches On! 

       Daytime itself was usually measured by daylight and night. The Romans divided the day and night into equal divisions, the parts of each half varying of course with the time of the year. Thus, depending upon the time of year, a Roman hour could be 40 to 80 minutes long. The Roman calendar transported to Alaska, in December, would have calculated the day as one of 12 10 minute hours and the night as 12 110 minute hours. With such a concept, clocks would be useless of course, but sundials, waterclocks, and sand glasses were entirely pragmatic.

     Calendars, or the concept of a systematic evaluation of the year, go back to at least 4236 BC, possibly the earliest recorded year in the history of time. An Egyptian calendar was based upon lunar cycles for months, and upon the rising of the dog star, Sirius, beside the sun every 365 days. Calendars evolved in Central America among the Mayans as early possibly as 2000 BC, based upon the journey of the Sun, the Lunar Cycle and the planet Venus. Not to be outdone by Indo-Germanic civilization, the Mayans actually had two calendars, one of 260 days, the second of 365 days. It is interesting that 260 days approximates the five day work week total, holidays excluded, but there is no evidence that this was the reason for the abbreviated calendar. Interestingly, as well, according to the Mayans, the Earth was created in 3113 BC, a numerical palindrome. Of course, like all of time, the date is relative.

          The onset of writing had some influence on concepts of time. According to Walter J. Ong, in “Orality and Literacy”, with the emphasis on the use of writing efforts were made to compute time on the basis of calendars. For example, it was necessary to fix the precise dates for the Creation or the Second Coming. The use of time was important in the chronicles of the medieval period, such as Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks or Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people. It was important to determine precedence in chronicling Christian history. In those days, every historical chronicle usually began with a brief history of the world, requiring significant extrapolation of the calendar. Dating however, was not based necessarily upon Anno Domini, but ran the gamut of time from a vague event such as the founding of Rome, to a more specific occurrence such as the death of the local Bishop or Prince. With writing, copies of different historical sources could be collated and checked for errors.  As late as the 18th century, however, some clerics insisted that the earth was born in 4004 BC, another numerical palindrome that is easily memorized and assuages uncertainty.

     The medieval day was divided by church prayers and services- Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, etc. Although primarily used in monasteries, the hours were referred to even outside the cloisters. However, these hours were not strictly clock dependent, being dependent upon when the sun rose or set. Thus, there were a specific number of prayer hours during daylight, with the time intervals decreasing or increasing toward Winter or Summer. One wonders what device would have been used if monasteries had originated above the Arctic Circle.

     I was pleased to receive recently from Ed Quatrocchi a reprint of his essay on the Concept of Time in Medieval Literature – in Dante’s Divine Comedy specifically. Astronomical signs marked the hours of the journey. In hell, “most [of the sinners]” have the special ability to see time future, but have no concept of time present- In Hell, the air is timeless”. Paradise is also timeless. In Purgatory, however, one is very much concerned with time- a specific span required to carry out an expiation. The time passages in the journey, have in fact, been debated by scholars for over 600 years, especially when you consider that Virgil and Dante frequently use the stars as guides while in the depths of Hell- quite an anomaly. 

     There is a proposal for a revision of time into metric units. With this system, one revolution of the earth, a metric day, would consist of 25 metric hours, subdivided into 100 metric minutes, in turn subdivided into 100 metric seconds. In other words, one metric minute would now last a little over 30 current seconds, a metric hour, several minutes less than the current hour. This would provide an extra hour a day. Psychologically, efficiency would be increased since one hour meetings would now be shorter and more could be scheduled. The extra hour could be used for a personal mini-festival, similar to feast days that were inscribed in the Roman calendar where work was forbidden. Doomsday predictors would have to say, “It is now 24:99” instead of “11:59”.

     We should conclude by considering personal time, the real time in which we live as individuals. No watch can record it, no matter how accurate. It expands and contracts according to our moods and interests. It leaps over decades in seconds and transfixes events long gone into our own time warp. It is that transposition of time that enriches our lives and prolongs our summers among the singing wires and buzzing bees. But Eliot described it more succinctly.













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