Time as a Category of Measurement, Transfer and Experience in 19th and early 20th century Europe

Małgorzata Litwinowicz's picture
September 22, 2022 to September 23, 2022
Subject Fields: 
Cultural History / Studies, European History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Maritime History / Studies, Modern European History / Studies

“As Time Goes by”?

Time as a Category of Measurement, Transfer and Experience

in 19th and early 20th century Europe


Time had long been crucial for history, religion, philosophy, travelling, art, business, the sciences, and everyday experience. However, the 19th century brought an essential change: vast local times became the subject of measurement and standardisation. The process concluded with the embodied idea of universal time: the same for all the inhabitants of the Earth. 

A London conference in 1884 adopted a universal day of 24 hours beginning at Greenwich midnight. By about 1900, almost all countries had adopted a standard time zone. Some of them used an hourly offset from GMT. Despite “structural” decisions – the variety of local times was an important factor of the everyday experience of individuals and communities for many decades onward.

The idea of the conference focuses on time as an element of human experience, a category of culture and a tool used for designing and governing the lives of people and societies. Those themes also refer to broader reflection concentrated on the 19th century as the beginning of rapid globalisation – contrary to the typical focus on the development of nationalism separating societies and states in all possible dimensions: political, social, cultural ones. 

We want to look at how people of the long 19th century and early 20th century tried to include, invent, and change time in different ways and with different tools: clocks, time zones, telegraphs, travelling, modern media, and how these mechanisms of measuring and controlling time gained importance for everyday life, public and cultural discourses, and political conflicts. Time measurements should serve as perfect focal points within and between communities. The conference will analyse how 

We are interested in the phenomena in five European Empires: British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman, taken as an important scene for European changes and conflicts. The elite and a growing number of the people in these Empires aimed to gain power over the circulation of information, their range and speed, and the impact of new inventions (e.g., widening telegraph networks, modern transport, technological experiments). 

The relationship between time, communication and politics in Europe calls for an interdisciplinary approach. Thus, we want to invite historians who work on politics and technics, scholars of literature and art, sociologists and experts in social and economic history. The point is to use various sources to demonstrate different receptions of time – most of them are easily accessible, but some are not; to name a few: the impact of travelling, personal documents, international magazines, new media or mass-selling devices like clocks and calendars.

The time went by – but loaded with many social functions and symbolic meanings. The power over it was technical; it created a mechanism of influencing the lifestyle of individuals and communities, effective leverage working for changing inherited from past feudal schemes of prestige and power, changing theatre of royal courts into a unified, standardised time of the working classes. 

If we look at 19th century Europe, we will see that we deal not with Europe of asynchronous dynamics but with Europe of asynchronous time(s), often conflicted and confronted. Focusing attention on asynchrony as experience and model of power allows us to discard unfruitful notions of “centre” and “peripheries” and to develop other perspectives and issues, such as:

  • empires and time; politics of power – unification, standardisation of time, the battle for “universal time”;
  • from imperial to national: time systems and imagined communities; projects of “nationalisation” of time;
  • simultaneity: unification and standardisation of time in multicultural/culturally various societies;
  • time monetised: using/controlling/possessing time as a mechanism and value of capitalism;
  • time and knowledge; managing time and its schemes and the issue of literacy/education;
  • time experienced: vernacular practices, strategies and tactics toward time measured;
  • social performances connected with time (“being in a hurry” as the performance vs ostensibly refuted discipline of time; practices of the free time, fear of speed etc.); 
  • simultaneity of different time regimes (state, official, railway, agricultural, liturgic, etc.) and the way they overlapped and confronted each other;
  • materialisations: chronometers in public and personal spaces. 

Where: Institute of Polish Culture, Warsaw University (in situ)

When: September 22-23, 2022

Languages: English.

Contact Info: 

Conference organised by Institute of Polish Culture, University of Warsaw


Proposals: title and summary of the paper (up to 250 words) and short author’s note (main scientific interests and publications) should be submitted by May 31st 2022 to:





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