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  • Robert Farago

How The Civil War Changed Our Perception of Time


In 1852, Aaron Dennison launched the world’s first mass-produced product using interchangeable parts. Waltham’s assembly line was the inspiration for Henry Ford, but the mass-produced pocket watch’s influence on American life was far greater than Hank’s Model T.

The crucial fact to keep in mind: the first Waltham pocket watch hit the streets nine years before the American Civil War. The U.S. of A. was still largely an agrarian nation; a little under half of all her inhabitants made their living from agriculture.

In the main, people measured time as humans had since the dawn of time: by the sun’s position in the sky. Sunrise, noon and sunset set the rhythm of life. Church bell technology only reinforced the pattern, signaling morning, lunch and workday’s end.

Solar time perception was more exclusive in the North (where farms were small, relatively simple and out of earshot of church bells) than the South (where plantation overseers used pocket watches to coordinate dozens, sometimes hundreds of slaves).

That said, the North was home to time-sensitive textile mills (How European Hat Wearers Enabled America's Industrial Revolution). And the North’s burgeoning railway system was acclimatizing the general populace to the concept of “clock time.”

When The War Between the States broke out in 1861, the Union and Confederate armies instantly realized the pocket watch’s military value.

From officers coordinating supplies, troop movements and artillery fire, to soldiers performing timely guard duty, the pocket watch became a life-and-death necessity.

One immediate beneficiary: the Waltham Watch Company, saved from yet another bankruptcy by a Union Army contract.

Renamed the American Watch Company (AWCo), the Massachusetts manufacturer made bank catering to the booming demand from common soldiers seeking hardy, reliable timekeepers.

Hundreds of thousands of newly enlisted soldiers, who never before thought they need or could even afford a watch, very quickly came to decide that they could not afford to be without one. Fortuitously, the new compelling motivation to own a watch was was enabled by a new means to pay for one, because enlistment was the first time in many soldiers’ lives when they received a regular cash wage.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of pocket watches to the boys fighting to preserve the Union or protect the institution of slavery.

As a sign of the timekeepers’ value, they were plunder item number one. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldiers “recovered” thousands of pocket watches from dead Confederates.

By the standards of the day, the number of AWCo pocket watches produced is staggering. The company manufactured and assembled some 146k watches immediately prior and during the Civil War.

Over the same time period, the Swiss exported over a quarter million cottage industry pocket watches stateside, with the Brits sending another 120k.

While only 15 percent of the estimated 3.4m men who served in the Union and Confederate armies had a pocket watch, all of them served under its temporal auspices. All those who returned home did so with a new, irreversible way of perceiving time.

The sun was no longer the arbiter of time passing (further demoted by the spread of brighter, less smokey and cheaper kerosene lamps). Time was measured by a communion of tiny whirring gears and the rotation of hands around a dial.

Pocket watches enabled the ultra-sophisticated coordination of suppliers, manufacturers, workers, distributors and consumers, helping to make America a previously unimaginable economic powerhouse. At the same time, they contributed to the degradation of Americans’ connection with their circadian rhythms, indeed, nature itself.

In short, the Civil War freed the slaves even as it made Americans slaves to the clock. Specifically, the pocket watch.

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