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"Let's synchronize our watches!"

When did that question begin to make sense? In a fascinating essay from Geographical Imaginations, "Homogeneous (war) time," we have the answer: The Western Front in World War I:

‘When watches were synchronised what, exactly, were they synchronised to, and how was it done?’

Two technologies were pressed into service by the Allies; they can both be seen in this synchronisation instruction contained in Operation Order (no 233) from the 112th Infantry Brigade on 10 October 1918:

O.C. No.2 Section, 41st Divisional Signal Company, will arrange for EIFFEL TOWER Time to be taken at 11.49 on “J” minus one day ["J" was the day of the attack] and afterwards will synchronise watches throughout the Brigade Group by a “rated” watch.

The first was the Eiffel Tower – or, more accurately, the time-signal transmitted from the Eiffel Tower throughout the war.  In 1909 the original twenty-year lease for the Tower was about to expire, and many Parisians loathed it (Maupassant famously had lunch there every day because it was the one place in the city from which it couldn’t be seen) so that its demolition seemed imminent.  But it was saved in large measure because the French military was persuaded of its strategic value as a navigation and wireless beacon. Eiffel had allowed the Minister of War to place antennas at the top in 1903, and the Bureau des Longitudes (under the direction of Henri Poincaré) urged the development of the military radio-telegraphic station to broadcast time-signals twice daily.  The original intention was to enable mariners to set their chronometers, but the project had a wider strategic, scientific and symbolic  significance. ‘Wireless simultaneity’, writes Peter Galison, ‘had become a military as well as a civilian priority’. ....

The second requirement for choreographing time in the battlespace was the wristwatch. Originally wristwatches were designed for women (the first “wristlet” was made by Philippe Patek in 1868), and although the Kaiser had 2,000 wristwatches made for his naval officers in 1880 – and there is some evidence of their use in the Boer War – men continued to favour pocket-watches until the First World War. Both soldiers and aviators needed a hands-free way of telling the time, and so the “trench watch” was born. In Knowledge for War: Every officer’s handbook for the front, published in 1916, a wristwatch headed the kit list, above even a revolver and field glasses, and in the same year one manufacturer claimed that ‘one soldier in every four’ was already wearing a wristwatch ‘and the other three mean to get one as soon as they can.’

I'm sure there's a lot else to be said on this topic, including the role of the railroads, their schedules, "time zones," and the pocket watch from which the wrist watch evolved. (My father's gold pocket watch financed my first trip to Thailand, in a rather neat metaphor.)

Of course, today, we have cell phones, pads, and laptop computers, all synchronized automagically from NTP (network time protocol) servers and ultimately from "atomic clocks." Why, it's almost as if we're living in a war zone!

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

And where would film noir have been without that other WWI-inspired fashion accessory, the trench coat? Whenever we think of WWI, we always think of all the slaughter over who would control what is now useless land, but think of all the good that came of it.

Submitted by Hugh on

I know the German Schlieffen plan for the initial push into Belgium and France was meticulously organized with extremely precise train schedules. I seem to rememer Barbara Tuchman in the Guns of August relating how many German bureaucrats went insane coming up with them. So all that had to be synchronized. Even without watches so much of our life is synchronized by work, phones, TV schedules. A natural rhythm to one's life is almost impossible.

Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

What I've learned about war's effects on its participants over the years is that it makes no allowances for circadian rythms or anything of the sort. When I worked with Army units on training exercises, I'd see the same soldiers doing the same things on different days. What was remarkable about that was that while I'd gone home and slept in between, they had stayed on duty. Soldiers in war zones are told when they can eat and sleep, and learn to do it whenever they have a chance.

Yet another reason why war sucks.