Anthony Aveni observes different ways in which human constructions of time artificially regulate celestial patterns and biological rhythms. This is described as a human intervention to nature’s heartbeat, and a manipulation of something that exists beyond human culture.

Time systems became more complex and ornate as an economy and its attending bureaucracy grew and diversified. In China and Europe, mechanical clocks replaced sundials. We slowly began to manipulate nature’s direct input into the timekeeping process for our own benefit. Intercalation was one of the first steps toward human intervention, an insertion of society’s time into celestial time. Thus, we make the year complete by improving upon nature where we believe it has failed.

In a sense, the Maya did to the Venus cycle what medieval Christendom did to the sun cycle. The Venus table in the Dresden Codex tampers with time and reduces it to a cultural creation based on minor variations in nature’s harmonic heartbeat which can be detected only by careful listening and close observation. In bureaucratic societies, human actors take over both nature’s script writing and directingThe modern mass production of timepieces – with their artificial hours, minutes, and seconds – symbolizes the extent of our singleminded struggle to exercise control over that ghostly mechanical entity we imagine to be jogging alongside us, as close as a shadow but uninfluenced by the way we behave. When you say you are strapped for time, perhaps you are only expressing your frustration at the way you have become enslaved to that oscillating chip you carry about on your wrist.

Human culture emerges as the great processor of time. Like the rest of the biological world, our ancestors began by sensing the orderly biorhythms of natural time-the beat of the tides, the coming of the rains, the on-and-off stroboscopic flickering of the full moon’s light, the comings and goings of swallows, locusts, and the red tide. Unlike the New Haven oysters that relocated in Evanston, somewhere back in the distant past we became impatient and dissatisfied. We grabbed hold of the controls; we changed the order. We manipulated time, developed and enhanced it, processed, compressed, and packaged it into a crazyquilt patchwork to conform to our perceived needs: greater efficiency in dividing up the day means more earning power for both the corporate head and his workers; greater precision in Olympic timing makes for a better Reebok sneaker; and strategic positioning of daylight-saving time gives us more rest and recreation, and that leads to a longer personal time line (Aveni 1989, 336-37).

Aveni, Anthony. 1989. Empires of time: Calendars, clocks, and cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Joshua Keating reports that not all territories have always been interested in adopting a standardised social time. The U.S. national time is provided as an example of this, in which the railroad network demanded a country-wide common clock, despite cities such as Cincinnati wanting to remain with a more natural time.

We measure time not simply in terms of minutes and seconds, but in terms of concepts such as “early,” “late” – or, for that matter, “fashionably late.” What is the length of a “work day”? In the United States, Europe and Japan you’ll get three different answers.

Those subjective views help explain why the standardization of time has often been met with reluctance, if not outright resistance. Historically, countries have not eagerly embraced the global clock—they’ve felt compelled to do so because of the demands of commerce.

The U.S. national time standard, for instance, didn’t emerge until 1883, when it was adopted by the railroads, which needed to maintain common timetables. Before that, cities largely kept their own local time, and many were not happy to have big government and big railroads force standardization on them. “Let the people of Cincinnati stick to the truth as it is written by the sun, moon and stars,” editorialized one newspaper when the changeover was going into effect (Keating 2013).

Keating, Joshua. 2013. “Why time is a social construct.” Smithsonian.com. January 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-time-is-a-social-construct-16 4139110/


Vanessa Ogle reports how in 1905, the Indian government sought to introduce a national, standard time, to engender geopolitical cohesion with other countries. Whilst a politically popular decision, Ogle notes that the media, and the Indian population, criticised such a change. The basis of this criticism was that the government had created an artificial, fictitious time, which had separated Indians from their natural, solar time.

In the face of what appeared to be a solid consensus among those canvassed, the Government of India moved to introduce the time five hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich to the colony. The new time was designated as “Indian Standard Time,” to deflect from its potentially controversial “British” source…

In January 1905, the Government of India instructed the Public Works Department to introduce the time five hours and thirty minutes in advance of Greenwich as “Indian Standard Time” while in Burma the time to be adopted would run six hours and thirty minutes fast. As of July 1, 1905, all railways and telegraphs on the Indian subcontinent were to follow the new time…

The Government of India accurately anticipated the opposition to uniform time it was about to unleash, although perhaps less so its scope and intensity. Once more, it was Bombay, and to a lesser extent Calcutta, that became the focal point of collisions between deeply rooted urban identities and imperial policies. In 1905 as compared with 1881, protests against a new colony- wide mean time struck a much more anti- British chord than previously. Now it mattered that this was a time decreed by the British colonizers, that it was “British” time being imposed on colonial subjects. Twenty years after the Government of India’s first brush with time, under the changed circumstances of British rule in India in 1905, retaining local time became a matter of Indian national politics. Indians now perceived the change in official mean times as yet another in a long series of attempts by the colonial state to meddle with local and personal affairs…

Such was the situation when Indian Standard Time was to be introduced in the summer of 1905 on railways and telegraphs. Emboldened perhaps by similar moves of other local administrations, Bombay authorities suddenly made the decision to push for the adoption of Indian Standard Time for all official purposes and in government offices throughout the Bombay Presidency. In October 1905, the Government of Bombay asked the Government of India for permission to introduce the new time.

Outside the meeting halls of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the general public was voicing its dislike for the new order of time evermore loudly. As with other time changes in Europe and North America, the new Indian mean time was criticized for being “artificial” and unnatural. “We are asked to forget our natural time, the same that we have been familiar with from times immemorial, and adopt the new ‘standard’ which the ingenuity of the Astronomer Royal has devised,” the newspaper Kaiser-i-Hind complained, adding that nature herself must be in rebellion against this time. Later, the paper proclaimed, “nobody has asked for artificial time” to replace a time “which Nature has given to us and which mankind has faithfully followed these eight thousand years at least.” A letter to the editors of the Bombay Gazette found the new time to be “fictitious.” Another newspaper established, “the solar time is really the true time which regulates the affairs of each Indian house hold” (Ogle 2015, 107-12).

Ogle, Vanessa. 2015. The global transformation of time (1870 – 1950). Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.