How Trains Changed Time, or Bright Ideas with Unexpected Consequences

How Trains Changed Time, or Bright Ideas with Unexpected Consequences

Once upon a time, we didn’t always know the time. We didn’t carry it in our pockets or on our wrists. If you were working in the fields and wanted to know if it was time to go home, you could maybe look at the clock on the church tower, but otherwise you worked until the foreman decided it was time to stop for the day/night. It is still possible to see church clocks with only an hour hand in rural Britain today, relics from this vaguer life.

You could tell it was noon because the sun was at its highest. You could tell it was night because it was dark. How much more precise did you need to be?

Not much, while it still took days to travel from one part of the country to another. As long as you turned up within a day or so of when you were expected, no one would much worry.

Enter the railways.

If your church clock – having been set according to a reading from a sundial one summer day in the 15th century – reads just before 8 when the clock in a town half way across the country reads nearly quarter past, that’s no big deal, until a train from said town arrives (and leaves again) fifteen minutes before you’re ready. Then it begins to become necessary to standardise time across the nation (or at least the rail network). And this is what happened in the 1840s.

I heard a radio play about it once, with the poor railway representative trying to convince the people of a small, English town to change all their clocks to align with ‘railway time’. I was reminded of it, and the controversy the move caused, at the Science Museum last week. They’ve got an exhibition on until 26 January called ‘The Art of Innovation’. It is supposedly about how artists have depicted and reflected scientific developments over the centuries, but as well as this it is a fascinating exploration of the unintended consequences of various innovations. Did the inventors of the train ever imagine that their mechanical vehicles would change the very way the nation measured time?

I doubt it.

Another exhibit that struck me was the post-WWI prosthetic arm with its various attachments. Its label read:

In Germany, significant efforts were made to return wounded soldiers to productive work. Development of artificial limbs concentrated on improving prosthetic arms. Doctors and engineers turned to Arbeitswissenschaft (scientific management of work), which regarded the body as a mechanism that could be fine-tuned for efficiency. Doctors determined which functions a worker was unable to perform, meaning prostheses then risked limiting the wearer to their occupation, and class. … In effect, disabled soldiers were rebuilt, recycled and ‘improved’. (Emphasis added)

This wasn’t, of course, the first time humans had been considered as units of productivity. Almost every tool ever invented has been developed for the purpose of enabling humans to achieve outcomes more quickly and easily. Industrialisation was simply this drive on steroids, but it did propagate the impression that humans were at best instruments of, and at worst obstructions to, the smooth production of goods and services. Inconvenient, inefficient, but necessary, until we could find some way of ‘improving’ the processes to circumvent them.

This must have implications for our understanding of who we are and what our purpose is in the world. The orrery, with its representation of the sun at the centre of the solar system and the planets – including Earth – orbiting it, had, in the early 18th century, “acted as a model for the father at the centre of the household, the monarch at the centre of the nation, and God at the centre of the cosmos.” In the same way, the prosthetic arm acted as a model for man’s functionality within his own orbit, and the factory, a century earlier, as a model to show him just how small and insignificant his orbit was.

Which isn’t to say that we are not designed to work. We are. But it is interesting to see the progression between the desire to make our work easier and less laborious (to increase our leisure), through the desire to make it more efficient (to increase our wealth), to the desire to make it possible even for the disabled (to increase our value to society). As Sally Phillips pointed out in her recent Theos lecture (which I blogged about here), the parents and caregivers of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) would say that ‘the lives of our loved ones are valuable in and of themselves. Life is valuable in and of itself. Its goodness is not dependent on what can be achieved within it.’ We can have a meaningful existence without ever performing a single function. We do have meaningful existences far above and beyond our performance of functions.

The invention of the train changed time forever. What might we be able to invent that changes our attitudes to life and its worth, to help us once again celebrate and strive for what really matters?



The Art of Innovation is running at the Science Museum until 26 January. The exhibition is free but tickets should be booked in advance to avoid disappointment. It’s very well worth seeing if you can.

4 Comments On This Topic
  1. John from Belfast
    on Jan 6th at 11:58 am

    Hi Jennie, I look forward to year 2020 knowing you will be posting such thoughtful blogs
    I do not know when it happened but when I was working full time I had interactions with Personnel at work then somewhere along the line (no pun intended… trains theme) I reported to Human Resources . I found this change to have sinister overtones as if we were in competition with IT resources. So a ‘timely’ reminder from your good self

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 8th at 4:30 pm

      Thanks John, yes, it’s funny, I seem to remember there was a phase when ‘personnel’ became devalued as a term, and wasn’t aware of anyone challenging the shift to ‘human resources’. It was in the days before Twitter, of course, so I’m sure there were letters to the editor of The Times etc, but these things were able to slip under the radar much more easily. (So that’s one way technology may have helped us…?)

      Thank you for your encouragement.

  2. Fiona Waugh
    on Jan 8th at 2:56 pm

    Wow. In the middle of a working day, focussing on how “productive” I can be, this really makes me think and puts things in perspective.

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jan 8th at 4:27 pm

      Thanks so much, Fiona, that’s really encouraging.


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