"On Time" Opens at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

November 17, 1999
-- Marks Anniversary of Standard Time in America --
Where does the time go? On Time, a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, explores that question and more as it looks at the changing ways Americans have measured, used and thought about time during the past 300 years. The more than 4,000-square-foot exhibition, opening on the 116th anniversary of Standard Railway Time and the beginning of uniform national time in America, intermixes almost 200 clocks and watches with a wide variety of everyday objects to show how today's society has come to equate time with the clock. Another 300 objects will be virtually showcased through interactive computer stations in the exhibition. Visitors will be able to customize their own tours through the exhibition. It aims to stimulate visitors to think about time, both in American history and in their own lives, in new ways. The entrance of the exhibition prompts visitors with questions: how do you tell time? What role does the clock play in your life? Who controls your time? "Whether we think about time in large units, like the millennium, or small units, like nanoseconds, the bottom line is that American society is driven by time," said Spencer R. Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. "This exhibition will look back in history to see how we became so obsessed with time." On Time is divided into five main sections, each with a specific "landmark" to help visitors better understand and identify with how they think about timeBboth in American history and in their own lives. These landmarks include a 1930s refrigerator designed by efficiency expert Lillian Gilbreth; the skeleton of "Lexington," a famous 19th-century racehorse (horse racing, where fractions of seconds count, is a key to the popularity of the stopwatch) and an "Open 24 Hours" neon sign illuminating our around-the-clock culture. On Time is made possible through generous funding by Timex Corp. Marking Time (1700-1820) The first section in the exhibition looks at an era when most people did not own or pay attention to clocks. Time was marked by the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the cycles of hunger and sleep. People ordered their lives by the changing seasons, religious events and by births and deaths. The Almanac played an important role in keeping track of time by using a system of elaborate tables of astronomical, seasonal and religious events. The almanac in the exhibition was created by Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American farmer and illustrates his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to project the dates and times of celestial events (sunrise, sunset, progressions of the moon, the appearance of planets, stars and eclipses). Today, the Old Farmer's Almanac is the most widely used. Mechanizing Time (1820-1880) By the mid 19th century, industrialization changed the focus of the country and American's let the clock tell the time and regulate their lives. While they still looked to nature's rhythms to define time, the clock's measurement played a larger role. More people found themselves governed by the regularity and pace of the clock. A critical period of change in how time was kept occurred in August 12, 1853. Two trains were headed toward each other on a single track. The conductor of one train thought there was enough time to switch tracks before the approaching train was scheduled to pass through. But the conductor's watch was too slow. The train sped around a corner and collided head on with the other train killing fourteen passengers. As a result of the accident, railroads ordered more reliable watches for their conductors and issued stricter rules for running on time and New England railroads agreed to set their clocks and watches to a single standard time. This was how standard time was set. The American Watch Company of Waltham, Mass., developed the first type of mass produced watches. The American Watch Company redesigned the watch by creating watch movements which could be made by interchangeable parts on special machines by unskilled labors. They also created an organized factory-based work system that sped up the production and cut the costs of watch making. The Swiss quickly caught on to this idea and watch making became a competitive global market. By 1880, the United States exported more watches than it imported. Clocks began dominating every arena of daily life from the fields, to factories, from school and work to home. Synchronizing Time (1880-1920) More Americans lived in cities, worked in industry and were connected via trade and long-distance travel. Clocks were no longer set by the sun and moon but by synchronized systems of time zones enabling people to function in a coordinated way. Americans either fell easily into the pattern and conveniences of standard time or resented its rigid order. This was a time of waking to the jangle of an alarm clock on the bedside rather than to the sun. The clock determined the patterns of home and work rather than nature's intrinsic rhythms. In 1881, railroad managers commissioned William Frederick Allen to devise a plan that coordinated the train connections between fifty different regional times. Allen proposed to cut down the time zones to five. Each zone was determined by the time at the central meridian within each zone. Each central meridian was fifteen degrees of longitude or one hour apart. Prior to 1883, there were no time zones as we know them now. Each town and city had independent set times depending on their observation of the sun. On November 18, 1883, Standard Railway Time went into effect. Most railroads and communities switched to standard time therefore having two noonsBnoon by local time and by standard time. Some people objected to the change in time because it represented a loss of local autonomy or a disregard for the authority of nature. Some communities initially refused to switch. By 1884, delegates to the International Meridian Conference recommended that the globe be divided into twenty-four time zones, each one hour apart. This coordinated time system was slowly adopted over the world. Saving Time (1920-1960) Americans became obsessed with using time efficiently from the 1920s to the 1960s. This was a time when people found themselves pressured by the clock. Experts in "scientific management" segmented and streamlined both factory and office work to increase productivity and advocated time saving efficiencies for the home. Even periods of "time off" became defined by the clock. Time was divided up and measured out, not to be wasted. Time clocks were invented in the 1880s and they became a tool for controlling time in the workplace. It meant that time could be turned into moneyBwages for workers and into products and profits for the employer. Managers began saving time by measuring and controlling the amount of time a worker spent on any task. Speedy efficiency became the manager's ideal in workplaces of all kinds. Wartime urgency added to the sense that time was a kind of pressure. The Chicago World's Fair in 1933 unveiled the Gilbreth Management Desk which was promoted as the "Business Headquarters of the Household Manager." The desk, which was intended for the kitchen has a clock and within easy reach, a radio, a telephone, and adding machine, household files, reference books, schedules and a series of pull-out charts with tips on organizing and planning household tasks. Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, an industrial psychologist and a pioneer in factory efficiency studies and the mother of 12, saw the home as a workplace and the homemaker as both worker and manager. Her goal was to increase productivity, reduce drudgery and accumulate the time saved for leisure or creative pursuits. Expanding Time (1960-present) The fifth "landmark" in On Time, represents the 1960s to now when Americans try to get more time out of every day. Americans schedule each hour in the day to take advantage of the every minute. Even seconds are divided to make them more usable. More and more people are awake after midnight and awake before dawn. Neon lights up the night, announcing a society too busy to sleep. In the 1980s and 1990s, personal organizers became a workday and leisure-time tool for busy men and women. The organizers became a status symbol signaling that their owner was industrious and mindful of time. "Scientific Management" from the 1930s moved from the factories to offices. Business men and professionals wanted to increase their efficiency by mastering their use of time. By the 1950s, time management became a big business. Personal organizers proliferated, as did time-management texts and training programs. The day never ends. This is a 24-hour society driven by economic change and new information technologies. Interactive computer stations within the exhibition will "virtually" showcase another 150 objects. Demonstration carts will feature hands-on-activities for visitors. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at https://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.