See Inside A Matter of Time

A Chronicle of Timekeeping [Preview]

Our conception of time depends on the way we measure it

Mass-Produced Timepieces
AT THE TURN OF THE 19TH CENTURY, clocks and watches were relatively accurate, but they remained expensive. Recognizing the potential market for a low-cost timekeeper, two investors in Waterbury, Conn., took action. In 1807 they gave Eli Terry, a clockmaker in nearby Plymouth, a three-year contract to manufacture 4,000 longcase clock movements from wood. A substantial down payment made it possible for Terry to devote the first year to fabricating machinery for mass production. By manufacturing interchangeable parts, he completed the work within the terms of the contract.

A few years later Terry designed a wooden-movement shelf clock using the same volume-production techniques. Unlike the longcase design, which required the buyer to purchase a case separately, Terry's shelf clock was completely self-contained. The customer needed only to place it on a level shelf and wind it up. For the relatively modest sum of $15, many average people could now afford a clock. This achievement led to the establishment of what was to become the renowned Connecticut clockmaking industry.

Before the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, towns in the U.S. and Europe used the sun to determine local time. For example, because noon occurs in Boston about three minutes before it does in Worcester, Mass., Boston's clocks were set about three minutes ahead of those in Worcester. The expanding railroad network, however, needed a uniform time standard for all the stations along the line. Astronomical observatories began to distribute the precise time to the railroad companies by telegraph. The first public time service, introduced in 1851, was based on clock beats wired from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The Royal Observatory introduced its time service the next year, creating a single standard time for Britain.

The U.S. established four time zones in 1883. By the next year the governments of all nations had recognized the benefits of a worldwide standard of time for navigation and trade. At the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., the globe was divided into 24 time zones. Delegates chose the Royal Observatory as the prime meridian (zero degrees longitude, the line from which all other longitudes are measured) in part because two thirds of the world's shipping already used Greenwich time for navigation.

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