The restless age: time and acceleration in the long nineteenth Century

(Class leader: Oliver Zimmer)

Time and acceleration are among the defining features of the long nineteenth century. They are also, in fundamental ways, interlinked. As the pace of life quickened due to a series of technological innovations (among which the telegraph and the railways take pride of place) the need for shared time conventions (whether regional, national, or global) and for greater accuracy of timekeeping, grew accordingly. By the century’s end, standard time set on the Greenwich meridian had replaced local (solar) time in Europe, North America and many other parts of the globe. The spread of a world time standard has commonly been portrayed as a logical, and even an inevitable, by-product of modernization.

This MSt/MPhil option foregrounds a problem that has received much less attention from historians – namely, how nineteenth-contemporaries experienced time and acceleration, and how they constructed temporal schedules in accordance with their own needs and expectations. Its main concern is thus not with time as formal homogenization, but with the surprises, conflicts, and emotions that rendered time the central referent of modern life. While most of the empirical examples to be discussed relate to Europe and Britain, the focus of the eight classes is thematic and transnational. The weekly readings will consist of two essential texts of secondary literature, an extract from a primary source, and a series of further secondary readings. Other types of documents to be used include cartoons, images, and songs. The course combines the close study of particular phenomena (including the social and cultural significance of clocks, telegraphs, and railway communication) with theoretical reflections (on, among other things ‘modernity’, ‘time’, and ‘emotions’). The eight classes address the following topics:

Preparatory reading                     Sessions outline                    Bibliography