Words To That Effect Ep 21 Invention of Victorian Time

Episode 21: The Invention of Time

Time in the Victorian Era

Time, as we understand it today, was only really invented in the Victorian era.

We take it for granted today that our phones and watches and other devices are accurate to the second.

That time zones are clear and fixed – when it’s 3pm in Dublin, it’s also 3pm in London, and 4pm in Paris or 10am in New York.

We don’t think twice about the fact that a train can be scheduled to leave at precisely 11.04 and, when it arrives, passengers will be clear as what time it is at their destination

We know that time travel is a trope of science fiction, but not a scientific reality. We are aware that the sun is a star that’s burning through a finite store of hydrogen and will, eventually, burn out and die.

But all of these ideas about time – things we just don’t think very much about today – were not fixed at all in the nineteenth century.

Changing Conceptions of Time

It was in the Victorian era, particularly from the middle of the 19th century onward, that time moved to the forefront of public consciousness.

The concept of time was pondered over, debated, and discussed by everyone, from factory workers to scientists, tradespeople to academics.

Time found its way into novels by the authors of the age – from the renowned and to the long-forgotten

It was investigated and interrogated across scientific disciplines: by geographers, geologists, naturalists, and many others

And it caused fierce debate among those charged with regulating and organising trade, transport, and communications.

All across the world, time was a hugely important facet of life in the Victorian era.


Dr Trish Ferguson is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope University. The primary focus of her research is on Victorian literature and culture. She has published a monograph entitled Thomas Hardy’s Legal Fictions (Edinburgh University Press, 2013) and an edited collection of essays entitled Victorian Time: Technologies, Standardizations, Catastrophes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

She is currently editing a companion volume to Victorian Time, entitled Literature and Modern Time: Technological Modernity, Glimpses of Eternity, Experiments with Time (forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018).

Her staff profile page can be viewed here


Music this week was by Paddy Mulcahy, whose work can be found at paddymulcahy.com

There was also music from Saso, whose music can be found here

Track Listings

Paddy Mulcahy: Tape Sketches

Spider Doesn’t Sleep

Waltz Sketch




Saso: Exitudes

Cardboard Cutout

Works Mentioned

William Heath: The March of Intellect [print]

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend

Charles Dicken: A Christmas Carol

H.G. Wells: The Time Machine

Samuel Smiles: Self-Help

Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species

Alfred Tennyson: In Memoriam

An Anachronism, or Missing One’s Coach

Looking for more Victoriana?

This episode is on the Victorian spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes

This one is on Baroness Orczy and Victorian crime fiction

And this one is on nervous diseases in Victorian times

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