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Historian investigates introduction of uniform time system in German Empire

The EU-wide debate regarding the abolition of daylight saving time clearly shows: Determining time by law alone is not enough – it must also be accepted and actually used by people in their everyday life. Currently, the historian Dr. Caroline Rothauge is investigating the effects of the introduction of a uniform time system in the German Empire around the year 1900 in the context of her habilitation project. Dr. Rothauge is a lecturer (Akademische Rätin) at the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at the KU.

Dr. Caroline Rothauge works as a lecturer (Akademische Rätin) at the KU Chair of Modern and Contemporary History (Photo: private)

Dr. Caroline Rothauge works as a lecturer (Akademische Rätin) at the KU Chair of Modern and Contemporary History (Photo: private)

What has meanwhile become known as ‘German punctuality’ did not exist in the last third of the 19th century. Whoever traveled from one place to another within Germany had to adjust their clocks quite often as every town had its own “natural” time which was dependent on the position of the sun. A first attempt to unify measurement of time was the introduction of so-called “mittlere Mittage” (average middays) which were considered local time zones in Prussia or in the Southern German states Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg. With the increasing importance of railways, more people began to travel and further attempts for coordinating different times were made. However, these attempts were not based on the government’s initiative but rather on the insistence of railroad companies. Towards the end of the 19th century, the German railway’s “internal service” hours were also based on the “average” local times. “In practical implementation, these efforts for increased unification initially led to an increased variety of time specifications”, explains Rothauge. A railroader, for instance, constantly had to carry out his work in a double time system, as he always had another time on his pocket watch than the one displayed on the clocks in the stations along the track.

Both the development in the rail industry and the increasing ship traffic eventually led to the International Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884 at which the earth was divided in 24 time zones of 15 degrees of longitude each – starting from Greenwich. Seven years later, General Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke called for the introduction of a national uniform time system in the German Reichstag, as the large number of different local times would have impeded efficient mobilization of the military in case of emergency. On April 1, 1893, Emperor Wilhelm II enacted by law that the “Central European Time” be used as standard time in the entire Empire. “The statutory introduction of the uniform time system, however, did not mean that the switch was simply flipped in the blink of an eye. For the people, the enactment meant an enormous change they needed to adjust to both in their private lives and working routine”, says historian Caroline Rothauge. She continues to say that there was evidence suggesting that in the years after the decree, formerly existing forms of dealing with time did not become obsolete overnight – people continued to live by them. For example, a “table for adjusting your clock” published in the family magazine “Daheim” (at home) in the year 1900 still took the position of the sun at noon as a reference point in the first step. A second table helped the reader to convert the large number of different local times to the “Central European Time”. This example as well shows that “attempts of temporal unifications initially exacerbated confusion regarding the manifold time specifications – especially seen from today’s perspective”, says Rothauge.

By introducing a uniform time system for the entire Empire by law, time gradually turned into a commodity: The Berlin-based “Normal-Zeit GmbH” for example entered the Prussian market and beyond with machines that promised to coordinate clocks using electrical impulses. Among the company’s customers were railway companies, the Berlin stock exchange, firms such as e.g. Krupp, schools, clockmakers, but also private individuals. However, the technology of the machines was not fully developed and electrical networks were prone to disruptions, which resulted in numerous complaints. This information was revealed by the estate of the director of Berlin’s observatory, Wilhelm Foerster.

The confusing variety of time specifications was made worse by the existing customs and habits in the professional world: “Around 1900, there was no such thing as a normal working day with working hours that applied to all industries and employees in all fields of activity. Workers had to fight for shorter and regulated working hours”, says Rothauge. In many industrial companies, the common 12-hour shift with a two-hour lunch break in which workers went home continued to apply. In view of the increasing distances between home and workplace, some workers called for the introduction of the so-called “English working time” that had less working hours and a 30-minute lunch break. Some entrepreneurs supported this request, such as for example Ernst Abbe from the Jena-based Carl Zeiss company who called for an 8-hour working day because he thought that it would increase productivity and have sociopolitical advantages in addition.

Rothauge found sources in the Siemens archive suggesting that, surprisingly, in the year 1900 there was an almost unbelievably large number of working time models which the historian likes to call “a chaos of simultaneous pluritemporality”. “Work regulations did not apply to the entire company or at least one location, but for individual workshops and offices. This led to many conflicts because workers and public servants and later employees felt that they were treated unfairly.” The first indication of a more coordinated approach towards unifying the variety of working hours at Siemens & Halske is found in the archives of the year 1902. Still, in individual workshops it was very common to order overtime “in case of need”. Correspondence between Siemens and railway companies shows that, for this reason, it was very difficult to synchronize timetables with working hours.

“All this led to the fact that the topic of time evolved into a major issue in the decades around the year 1900 which affected all levels of society and aspects of life”, says Rothauge. The historian points out that on the one hand, there are considerable differences between the debate on the abolition of daylight saving time and the discussions in the late Empire – however: “The arguments that are brought forward regarding the ‘natural’ sense of time have barely changed.” Another considerable difference was, that the contemporaries living around 1900 were not at all used to seeing time as an abstract concept. “Whereas nowadays, we cannot image our lives and our globalized world without the structure of time zones”, explains Rothauge. The historian names unification, regulation and synchronization as defining aspects for the discussion that was going on around 1900. She continues to say that these aspects had to be understood as a reaction to the then prevailing very diverse ideas and concepts of dealing with time which did not all relate to the “acceleration” approach that is much sought-after today. “While in the year 1900, mainly representatives from the bourgeoisie complained about a lack of time, I would say that they predominantly used this argument because they wanted to be perceived as ‘modern’”, concludes Rothauge.