How We Know What Time It Is

Nov 2, 2017

Daylight saving time ends this Sunday, which means we'll be getting back that hour of sleep we lost in March. Why do we turn our clocks back? We're getting to the bottom of that and more this week on "Two Way Street." On today's show, we hear from historian Michael O'Malley on the topic of time. O'Malley is a George Mason University professor of 19th and 20th century American history and author of "Keeping Watch: A History of American Time."

The cover of O'Malley's book, "Keeping Watch: A History Of American Time."
Credit Amazon

Our conversation begins with an exploration of how different cultures across the ages have thought of and kept track of time. O’Malley tells us about the earliest modes of time keeping, from Neolithic sites that tracked the solstice to the water clocks used by Benedictine monks to adhere to a strict prayer schedule.

Then, we jump to 19th century America, when each town still kept its own time. This meant that towns could disagree on the time. But more than that, it meant that there could even be disagreements on what time it was within a single town. O’Malley explains what roles the Industrial Revolution and the international scientific community had in changing this system to make way for a new national standard of time.

He also takes us back to 1889 when the debate over standard time played out in Augusta, Georgia. The state was bisected by two time zones, eastern and central time. Augusta opted for the latter to the displeasure of some residents. Hear why the Georgia Supreme Court had to get involved and which side they ruled in favor of—solar or mechanical time.

We’ll answer your questions about daylight saving time, too, including the question of why it’s still around. “There’s always been a commercial interest that stands to benefit from daylight saving,” O’Malley explains. He tells us about the surprising industries that lobby Congress to extend the hours of daylight saving.