On Time National Museum of American History

Marking Time
Synchronizing Time
  Alarm Clock Blues
  Time Discipline
  Time Zones
  Time Machines
Playing with Time
The Here and Now
Colonizing the Night


Time Machines

Automobiles provided a new way of moving through time, freeing people from the confines of place and the scheduled transportation of railroads and streetcars.
Sheet music
Sheet music, 1911
Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center, DeVincent Collection
  Advertisement, February 1924; from House and Garden
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Playing with Time
Early movies were shorts with no plots. For comic or dramatic effect, filmmakers and projectionists relied on the ability of the film to speed up, slow down, reverse, and stop time. By 1903, moviemakers began to tell stories. Segments of real time were cut up and rearranged to produce a compressed reel-time experience.
Projector, patented 1901; by Vitascope
Gift of Thomas Armat
  Projectionist, 1898; from Animated Pictures by C. Francis Jenkins
  Telephone, about 1920
Gift of Meggers Collection
The Here and Now
As the turn of the 20th century approached, people were preoccupied with the subject of time. Intellectuals and artists pondered the nature of time itself—especially the concept of "simultaneity" and the definition of "now." What did now mean if a phonograph could capture a moment, bringing the past to the present and the present to the future? Was now freed from place if the telephone enabled two distant persons to experience the same moment? How long was now if a painting depicted movement through time?
Colonizing the Night
Electric light enabled people to expand the boundaries of daytime both indoors and out. In 1910, only one in ten American homes had electric lights. Twenty years later, most urban homes were enjoying light that was brighter, cleaner, and safer than gas lamps. Electric lighting transformed the workplace in similar ways. It also made possible round-the-clock shifts, keeping valuable equipment from idling, but disrupting workers' personal lives. Floodlights allowed people to enjoy spectator sports and other leisure activities when the workday was over.
Fifth Avenue, 1909
Electric table lamp
Fifth Avenue, 1909; New York, lit with arc lamps
Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center, Larry Zim Collection
  Electric table lamp, 1920s; by Pairpoint Corp., New Bedford, Massachusetts
Mirror apparatus
Mirror apparatus, 1924–1926; used by A. A. Michelson at the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California
Gift of Preston R. Bassett
Physicist Albert A. Michelson used this mirror apparatus to determine the speed of light, which proved to be constant around 186,000 miles per second. That finding contributed in part to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. Einstein concluded that even the extremely high speed of light did not provide for absolute simultaneity of distant events. For Einstein, time was not absolute and unidirectional, as nearly everyone since Isaac Newton had believed. Instead, time appeared to be flexible, tied to the experience and position of the individual.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History