Measuring Time: A time to keep, a time to lose

Despite numerous attempts by radicals to reform the calendar, it is usually commerce that decides the way we measure time, as Matthew Shaw explains.

French decimal clock from the time of the French RevolutionThose planning on flying to the Samoan capital of Apia for New Year may find themselves somewhat confused: there will be no December 28th, 2011 in Samoa. The small Pacific island is reversing an 1892 decision to set its clocks according to the western, or ‘American’ side of the International Date Lane and is erasing a day from the calendar in order to become closer to its now more important trading partners of New Zealand and Australia. Rather than being 21 hours behind Sydney, it will be three hours ahead. The loss of a day is a small price to pay for improved commercial relations.

In similar fashion, visitors to Folkestone in Kent this summer may find themselves puzzled if they look at one of ten public clocks, ranging from that of the town hall to one in a local taxi. In these timepieces, the day is divided into ten hours, each hour into a hundred minutes and then a hundred seconds. As a commission for the Folkestone Triennial, the artist Ruth Ewan has replaced their dials and mechanisms to recreate the decimal time introduced in 1793 during the French Revolution as part of the reform of the calendar. Ewan is concerned with the ways in which radical ideas are disseminated and the reform of time, surely the most taken-for granted feature of daily life, may be considered the most radical of all.

The measurement and marking of time has had a long political, cultural, commercial and – especially – religious history, given that the solar and lunar years are intrinsically linked to the world’s major religions. In Europe Pope Gregory XIII’s reform of the Julian Calendar in 1582 brought the continent’s sectarian divisions into temporal relief as, decade by decade, Catholic countries such as France gradually advanced ahead of Protestant Germany and England. Commercial and diplomatic pressures caused Britain to adopt the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, losing 11 days in the process (the ‘loss’ of which allegedly inspired riots), while Sweden followed in 1753. Russia remained wedded to the Julian Calendar, introduced by Peter the Great in 1700, and only moved to the Gregorian calendar in 1918 as a symbol of Bolshevik modernisation.

Of all these reforms the French Republican calendar remains the boldest statement of a new political beginning. Following the meeting of the National Assembly in 1789 political writers and even newspaper mastheads had begun referring to the ‘first year of liberty’. On September 22nd, 1792 France became a republic with no need for regnal years and acts were to be dated ‘Year One of the Republic’. A year later a committee headed by Charles Gilbert Romme (1750-95) proposed an entirely new calendar closely linked to the Committee of Public Instruction’s work on new decimal weights and measures. Henceforth the years would be dated from the inauguration of the Republic and each year commenced on observation of the autumnal equinox; a double symbolic whammy, as this coincided with the anniversary of the inauguration of the Republic on September 22nd. The calendar cast aside the traditional seven-day week, replacing it with ten-day décades, and equalised the 12 months into 30 days apiece. The remaining days constituting the solar year were gathered into a series of festivals at the end of year, which celebrated concepts such as Reunion and the Nation. The day, as the residents of Folkestone will discover, was also decimalised, with new hours, minutes and seconds offering watchmakers the chance to sell new timepieces.

The committee included the playwright Fabre d’Églantine (1750-94), who offered a series of names for the new months based on the agricultural year. While the structure of the calendar was allied to cold reason, the new nomenclature sought poetic appeal and gave the world such words as ‘thermidor’, the month of heat, and ‘germinal’, the month of germination. Plays, novels, films (and crustaceous recipes) have been indebted to these neologisms. But the longevity of this aspect of the French Republican calendar points to the resonance of the ideals it attempted to embody: an idealistic, even romantic, belief in the possibility of starting again and creating the world anew. Generations of revolutionaries have sought to associate themselves with this legacy, adopting the new calendar during the Paris Commune, for example, and in the USSR by the creation of a Soviet calendar from 1923 to 1940, with five-day weeks. Communists and radicals were able to assert their republican or revolutionary credentials by using the system to date their publications and even by creating their own decimal timepieces. The notion of a fresh beginning had its most notorious outing during the Cambodian revolution, with the call for a ‘Year Zero’.

But ideals must confront reality. As the commercial decision taken by Samoa shows, the demands of modern commerce do more to drive timekeeping than political agendas. The real legacy of the Republican calendar lies not just in its call for optimistic change but in the scientific and commercial underpinnings of modern calendars. Romme and Fabre d’Églantine missed the importance of industrial reform, but believed that the calendar’s agricultural associations not only gave a grounding in the natural world, but would help to promote best practice in agronomy. When it was abolished in 1805 it was for commercial and scientific reasons rather than any attempt by Napoleon to distance himself from the revolution.

The series of international treaties and conventions of the 19th century that gave rise to the International Date Line skirted by Samoa derive from the impetus of change driven by technological reform – such as the telegram and railway timetable – and international trade. Our modern calendar is a monument not to the universal ideals of liberty as envisioned by Romme but to the practicalities and exigencies of global trade.

Matthew Shaw is a curator at the British Library. His Time and the French Revolution: a History of the French Republican Calendar, 1789-Year XIV will be published by Boydell & Brewer in August 2011.

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