A full rotation of the earth around its own axis produces patterns and rhythms in nature known as the diurnal cycle. Ever since human beings could perceive that the sun rose in the East and set in the West, the assumption was that there was a passage of time.

Then came the measuring of time. Lunar cycles were observed, sundials and water clocks became commonplace in some societies. These all pointed towards evidence that the telling of time could be linked to the diurnal cycles of the earth. By the 14th century, in Europe, mechanical clocks were invented, leading to the engineering of the grandfather clock in 1657. Consequently, the world saw a rise in the ordering of human life around the clock.

Source: Pixabay

With more and more humans telling time, and governments trying to agree on what the real time was, there was a worrying trend developing in the United States. In the 1880s, each American town had established their own local times based on their reading of the sun. And this caused a headache for the railroad industry. Specifically, the coordinating of trains.

Great Britain resolved in 1840 to begin adhering to a standardized time for their railways. It would be known as the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). From 1846 to 1848, the railroad stations across Great Britain were all synchronized according to the GMT time. America was having troubles too.

Bafflingly, when it was 6:28 am in Los Angeles, it was 9:28 am in New York. Thus, if each town had its own time defined within its own borders, going cross-country in a train would prove dangerous because two trains traveling on one railroad would want to arrive at the same time — but with the train drivers thinking it was a different time. Metaphorically and literally, it would have been a train crash waiting to happen.

The different states in America realized they would not be able to solely rely on their state-specific reading of time.

In 1918, the American Congress heard and accepted the idea of a standard railroad time. Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific times. Congress eventually passed the Standard Time Act in 1918 and standardized time.

Since then, the rest of the world became dependent on timezones collectively defined with the lesson of railroad travel in mind. GMT has been spun-off and refined into Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), utilizing the advent of atomic clocks which tell time much more accurately. America still adheres to their four time zones that were standardized in 1918.

The change trains and railroads brought to the world, and human life was characterized as the ‘annihilation of space and time’ - engineers had achieved a physical change to the world that had never been observed before. A psychological shift followed - humans became accustomed to a world of travel, speed, and power. And as a result, led to more technological expansion. Many technologies like global positioning systems and the computers that have given rise to them rely on an understanding of atomic time in the present moment.

Source: Pixabay

The world is now observing the fourth industrial revolution. An advancement of technology that could once again disrupt our perception of time, space and energy. As quantum physics’ exploration continues and gives rise to technologies like quantum computing, nanotechnologies, and more, the boundaries of possibilities are growing further and further outward. What this will mean for the majority of engineering industry still remains to be seen - however, the effect is poised to be significant.

How will engineering change human perception of the natural environment next?


Works Cited

“How Did Trains Standardize Time in the United States? - William Heuisler.” YouTube, 5 Feb. 2013, youtu.be/UBpTohx1BOc.

“The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.” Penguin Books, www.penguin.co.uk/books/301539/the-order-of-time/.

“The Railroad Journey and the Industrial Revolution: Crash Course World History 214.” YouTube, 1 Nov. 2014, youtu.be/GYAk5jCTQ3s.

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