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Hidden in Plain Sight: Deep Time and American Literature

Toward Endless Life: Population, Machinery, and Monumental Time

Thomas Allen


L’histoire culturelle du temps est récemment devenue un objet d’investigation scientifique, tant en histoire qu’en littérature. Ce qu’en anglais on appelle « Big History » nous encourage à réfléchir à plus grande échelle, à situer les périodes historiques sur une plus longue durée, et à inscrire l’activité humaine dans une histoire naturelle qui se développe sur des millénaires. Mais ce tournant a lui-même une histoire, qui éclaire notre quête actuelle pour définir l’échelle à laquelle nous voulons comprendre l’expérience humaine. Lors des grandes expositions universelles de la fin du XIXe siècle, aux États-Unis, celle de 1876 dite du « centenaire » à Philadelphie, celle dite « Colombienne » de Chicago en 1893, les visiteurs ont été confrontés à des représentations d’un temps long où l’humanité jouait un rôle relativement insignifiant. L’histoire que ces expositions semblent raconter est une histoire où les êtres humains sont devenus des populations, au sens malthusien du terme, sur le point de céder leur place, dans un récit quasi-évolutionniste, aux machines et aux horloges, fétichisées et magnifiées. En imaginant des temps inhumains, les expositions et leurs lots d’artefacts culturels, tels que les horloges monumentales, les récits et les esquisses littéraires, ou les tableaux historiques, semblent présager non seulement l’intérêt contemporain pour le temps long et « Big History » mais aussi des phénomènes culturels tels que l’Horloge du Long Maintenant, une horloge tellement lente qu’elle pourra, selon ses constructeurs et concepteurs (ingénieurs et technophiles associés à l’industrie de l’informatique en Californie) dire le temps dans un avenir où l’humanité aura disparu. Ainsi, le « temps profond » devient le fantasme d’un monde autre que celui fait par les êtres humains.

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1When William Dean Howells toured the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, he noted with surprise that the exhibition’s immense space seemed strangely empty of people. Observing the signs warning visitors to keep off the landscaped areas, Howells commented: “There seemed not enough people present to justify the vigilance that guarded them; but I think this was an illusion, to which the vastness of the whole area and its irregular shape and surface contributed. There were probably fifteen thousand visitors that day, but many thousands more dispersed over the grounds and scattered through the different buildings would have given nowhere the impression of a crowd” (Howells, 1876, 92). In his report of his impressions for the Atlantic Monthly, Howells acknowledged the reality of the large number of visitors to the exhibition, but chose to emphasize the way that these many individuals seemed insignificant next to the immense buildings and machines on display. Howells found his attention drawn to the “vast and almost silent grandeur” of the Corliss engine and its single, lonely attendant [figure 1] (Howells, 1876, 96). In the imagination of the Atlantic editor, the Corliss Engine became the central symbol of an exhibition of American progress in which human beings seemed to play a passive and insignificant role. The exhibition represented American history, one hundred years of national time, yet in Howells’s view the “America” on display seemed detached from its people.

Figure 1.

The Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall. Illustration from James D. McCabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition (Philadelphia, 1876).

  • 1 With total attendance approaching nine million, the Centennial Exhibition was one of the best-atten (...)

2This is not to say that Howells failed to take any note of the many visitors to the Exhibition. Even though Howells made his visit in May, when attendance was lighter than it would be during the summer and fall, there were nevertheless ample crowds.1 However, Howells’s representation of these visitors systematically diminishes their agency and their presence. In this abstract conception of America, people play melancholy roles as lonely attendants to vibrant machines or as members of small groups circulating among the vast grounds. In part, there is something inhuman to Howells’s portrayal of the Exhibition, a sense of a nation made up of buildings and machines but lacking citizens, a nation not so much devoid of people as it is devoid of individuals with agency.

3In presenting these groups as subordinate to the vast spaces and sublime technology of the Exhibition, Howells joined many of his contemporaries in using the occasion of the centennial to reimagine the relationship of the American people to the structure of historical time. In this essay I argue that representations such as Howells’s participate in an important shift in thinking about the human relationship to both time and technology. The Malthusian concept of population, which had been important to an earlier generation of Americans in thinking through problems of geography and the movement of groups of people across space, provided many writers, artists, and other thinkers of the centennial era with a way of imagining the movement of human beings through historical time. In making this argument, I adopt the theory of the “novel of population” developed by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. Armstrong and Tennenhouse show how one branch of the novel in the nineteenth century dealt with people not as individuals (the preferred focus of the domestic novel) but as populations. They demonstrate how such novels imagined the movements of populations across space, a crucial aspect of national and colonial administration. My own claim is that in the last third of the nineteenth century, this narrative concern with population movement was adopted by a variety of writers and other cultural commentators to imagine the movement of populations through time.

4The history of what I will call “monumental time” reveals an intersection between the interest of the modern administrative state in managing the movement of populations through time and a complementary longing on the part of individuals to imagine their own dissolution within time. In other words, while representations of population movement through time perforce involve the representation of people, these people do not resemble and in fact contest the model of a liberal subject possessed of agency privileged in the domestic novel. The rhetoric of population movement through time thus became a way of imagining the disappearance of a certain notion of the human in favor of a grand sense of inhuman or post-human futurity, a sense that recurs, I will suggest, in the interest of some historians and technologists of our own era in concepts such as “deep time” and “big history,” and more generally in our own fascination with temporal spans exceeding human comprehension.

Imagining Monumental Time

  • 2 The Centennial Eagle was a newspaper published in Philadelphia during the period of the Centennial (...)

5In the same centennial year in which Howells made his observations for the Atlantic Monthly, Williams College president Paul Ansel Chadbourne summed up the prevailing sentiment in an address disseminated by the Centennial Eagle: “Our first great lesson for the century,—that which we have but just learned at its close,—is that our country is a NATION” (Chadbourne, 1876, 42).2 Public addresses and periodical writings were filled with similarly didactic injunctions to contemplate the significance of one hundred years of national time. This reflection upon the meaning of the century was accompanied by a trend in both industry and government to employ large, highly visible clocks to coordinate the activities of groups of people. These trends were woven together when, as historian Alexis McCrossen has noted, “clocks became monuments” with historical and nationalistic themes integrated into the design of large-scale public timepieces (McCrossen, 2007, 247). Hence, the clock time that increasingly regulated everyday life overlay a repository of historical time.

6Through these grand clocks and other technological artifacts, works of art, and exhibitions, Americans reshaped national time into a monumental form—a form in which human beings often appeared to play only a minor role. When Howells toured the Centennial Exhibition, the spatial mapping of temporal relations was a prevalent theme. The idea of a modern civilization presented by the exhibitions synthesized time and space, making time as expansive as the spaces of the exhibition buildings and grounds. The Egyptian display within the Main Building featured the inscription, “the oldest people of the world sends its morning greeting to the youngest nation” (McCabe, 1876, 437). Historian Robert Rydell has described the way that the Exhibition presented visitors with “a dynamic vision of past, present, and future” (Rydell, 1984, 17). Howells picked up on this theme in the opening of his article for the Atlantic Monthly, where he ponders the paradox of naming a place for a period of time: “The Centennial is what every one calls the great fair now open at Philadelphia,” he begins, but then adds, “you cannot go to a Centennial, any more than you can go to a Millennial.” Nevertheless, Howells acknowledges, there did not seem to be any other sensible way to refer to the “commemoration of our hundredth national anniversary; and so, at last, Centennial is the best name, in spite of its being no name at all” (Howells, 1876, 92). Thus, the Centennial made available to visitors a symbolic geography of positioning and belonging within a grand scale of space and time, dimensions whose connection was signified through the uncanny displacement of the name for a period of time onto a space.

  • 3 For examples of “Big History,” see Christian, 2011, and Brown, 2008. The concept of “la longue duré (...)

7The construction of monumental time in this period constitutes a significant step toward our own era’s fascination with concepts such as “deep time,” la longue durée, and “Big History.”3 Such long-term historical thinking seeks to avoid a narrow “presentism” or even to eschew altogether an anthropocentric perspective on the world. While different practitioners have different goals and methodologies, a commonality to expansive historical thought is the desire to avoid what “Big History” pioneer David Christian calls “disconnected fragments” of understanding. Instead, Christian advocates the development of ambitious narratives that would present nothing less than “a unified account of how things came to be the way they are” (Christian, 2011, 2). Other historians more focused on the specifics of particular times and places would decry Christian’s program; my purpose here is not to enter into such methodological debates among historians, but rather to point out that the kind of thinking represented by the aspirations of Christian and other “Big Historians” has its own history. Nineteenth-century constructions of monumental time suggest that such grand temporal visions are inspired by problems of population, by the need for narrative structures to manage the movement of people as populations across historical time.

Populations in Time

8Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse have recently directed our attention to the concern of an important group of early American novels with the problem of managing population within and across spatial boundaries. As Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue, our understanding of the novel as a genre that privileges individual consciousness must be supplemented by acknowledging the ways in which important varieties of the novel focus on human beings on the scale of populations. While the English domestic novel imagines how human beings acquire agency as subjects within liberal political and economic frameworks, another tradition, influenced by the writings of Thomas Malthus (whose Essay on Population was first published in 1798), imagines the circulation of groups of human beings through transnational networks of trade. Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that, “Rather than constitute a community by drawing territorial boundaries to distinguish what is inside from what is outside—as British domestic fiction characteristically does—the early American novel establishes kinship by trading women, goods, and information across the Atlantic world” (Armstrong and Tennenhouse, 2008, 674). In this respect, the early American novel can be understood as “a form that transports bodies and information across regional and national borders” (Armstrong and Tennenhouse, 2008, 667). While the domestic novel provides an important script for the way in which political liberalism constructs the heterogeneous desires of individual subjects, the novel of population produces the equally vital blueprint by which the modern state manages large groups of inhabitants of national space.

  • 4 See also the discussion by John Marx of how the postcolonial novel can be understood as “more inter (...)

9While Armstrong and Tennenhouse focus on a trajectory of novels from the Barbary captivity narratives of the early national period through antebellum works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Hsuan Hsu has argued that their argument has a significantly wider relevance, for they “address issues that are crucial to understanding the circulation of laborers, armies, resources, and capital across the Pacific Ocean in the 1890s” (142). Indeed, the development of the theme of population in a variety of American writings and other cultural productions, not just novels, set in diverse locations and created in different periods of the nineteenth century, provides a running counterpoint to the focus on individual moral and psychological development characteristic of the domestic novel. If the domestic novel imagined the United States as “a nation created one individual at a time” (Armstrong and Tennenhouse, 2008, 677), the discourse of population continued throughout the century to provide an alternative focus on problems of management of large groups.4

10By the post-Civil War era, many Americans understood a particular phase of territorial expansion and occupation to have been completed. The admission of California and Oregon as new states on the Pacific coast just before the war and the post-War reintegration of the former Confederate states into the union were followed by technical achievements such as the transcontinental telegraph and railroad. Thus, the centennial era was a period of reformulation of the national relationship to continental space. The interest of the early American novel of population in describing how populations could move into and through national space was joined by a new preoccupation in other literary and cultural productions with questions of how populations could move through national and historical time. The Centennial Exhibition as a whole became a focal point for such themes. In producing an imagined identity of group belonging, sliced into identifiable demographic groups and coupled with individual passivity, the Centennial Exhibition treated the American people as a population, employing and extending the logic provided by the novels of population that Armstrong and Tennenhouse describe. Whereas the trajectory of novels of population from The Algerine Captive (1797) to Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been concerned with mapping the proper movement and distribution of groups of people into, out of, and across the vast geographical expanse of the United States, the temporal representations that flourished in the centennial era envisioned the movement of population through an immense history and into a forbiddingly capacious future.

11The structural links between the earlier work of spatial occupation and the later project of temporal movement, as well as the ways in which other representational forms such as painting could adopt the themes of the novel of population, are made clear in one of the era’s most significant works of visual art, Erastus Salisbury Field’s painting The Historical Monument of the American Republic (1867-1888). Painted on a nine-foot by thirteen-foot canvas, and developed in stages over a period of many years, this immense work represents American history as a massive structure culminating in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, depicted at the center top of the image [figure 2]. Field’s painting represents national development as a process of building upwards from a flat plain populated with human figures into a future monumentality in which railroad tracks in geometric forms have replaced human beings as the objects of interest. The different towers in the painting incorporate depictions of significant events from American history, but, as many critics have noted, the representation of historical events is non-linear. The events of the Revolution, for example, are spread all across the painting on different towers. However, this rendering of national historical time as non-progressive throughout most of the painting abruptly ends near the top, where a second foundation labeled “T.T.B.,” or “The True Base,” supports the Centennial Exhibition along with a network of railroads. Art historian Paul Staiti has argued that the arrangement of the events depicted in the lower section of the painting can be interpreted typologically, and since Field was an active member of an evangelical protestant church this is likely to have been his intention (Staiti, 1992, 41-43). However, in the context of the other representations of monumental time from the same period, it is also striking to observe how this painting, even if this is not its primary intended message, represents a progression from a heterogeneous, messy, and very human past spread out across space, to a lofty future defined by a rigid industrial geometry devoid of human presence. The lower section of the painting depicts human beings actively creating national history. In contrast, the centennial celebration depicted above “the true base” features architecture and engineering devoid of humanity.

Figure 2.

Erastus Salisbury Field, Historical Monument of the American Republic, 1867-1888. Oil on canvas. 9' 3" X 13' 1". Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. The Morgan Wesson Memorial Collection. Photography by David Stansbury.

Permission granted by the Springfield Museum. 

12Field’s painting thus sums up, with startling prescience, many of the themes that would be developed by the Centennial Exhibition and the other expositions and artifacts of monumental time that would proliferate over the ensuing two decades. Field had begun the painting in 1867, but he added the depiction of the heavenly railroads around the Centennial grounds in 1876 when the Exhibition opened. It seems that this event provided the resolution that he had been seeking in creating his chaotic but millenarian depiction of American history. As Staiti observes, “The division of past and future is precisely and tangibly marked on the seven tallest towers by a stringcourse entitled ‘T.T.B.’: The True Base. […] Below that line history cycles in tortured maelstrom. Above it a heavenly kingdom emerges” (Staiti, 1992, 35). The connection between a religious millennium and the technological utopianism of the Centennial Exhibition makes clear the import of the vertical movement of the painting: the transport of a certain population—in this case, the blessed citizens of America—from a messy past, across a border, and into a future in which that population paradoxically disappears amidst the harmonious operation of machinery.

  • 5 As Holley’s biographer Kate Winter explains, the “P.A.” of the book’s title stands for “Promiscuous (...)

13The sense of heavenly calm and inhuman serenity Field located at the top of his painting was also described by commentators who wrote about their visits to the Centennial. For example, Marietta Holley’s popular volume of comic sketches, Josiah Allen’s Wife as a P.A. and P.I.: Samantha at the Centennial (1877), describes how the fictional protagonist Samantha and her husband Josiah struggle through a chaotic and densely packed crowd to purchase tickets and make their way to the gates of the Exhibition.5 Once they pass through the gate, the atmosphere immediately changes to one of expansive serenity: “‘Why, comin’ right out of that contracted and crushin’ crowd, it seemed as if the place we had found ourselves in was as roomy and spacious as the desert of Sarah, s’posen she, the desert, was fixed off into a perfect garden of beauty, free for anybody to wander round and get lost in’” (Holley, 1878, 86). This book was Holley’s second volume featuring the fictional protagonist Samantha Allen; it featured artwork by True Williams, one of Mark Twain’s illustrators, and was praised by Twain in a review as a “brilliant” work of American humor (Winter, 2005, 64). By 1876, Holley had already established herself as a well-known humorist in the style of Twain, Artemus Ward, and Bret Harte, but her advocacy of temperance and women’s rights gave her works a different political inflection than was typical of the era’s male humorists. As Michael Epp has noted, Holley was “perhaps the most popular woman writer of the humour industry in the period” (Epp, 2012, 367). Thus, her portrayal of the exhibition must have shaped the impressions of many who never visited the site. In a sense, such representations of the Exhibition became as important to the public perception of it as the buildings and grounds themselves; and readers would have found here again an emphasis on the relative emptiness of the grounds as well as the sense of orderliness and tranquility that seems to result from the lack of pressing humanity. As a “desert,” the grounds are preferable to the populous city outside, mirroring in tone the blissful serenity of Field’s imagined paradise.

14Samantha develops her treatment of the idealized space of the Exhibition into a consonant representation of time when she experiences a vision of a woman’s figure bestriding the exhibition grounds, her “eyes full of glory and mystery bent forever onwards and outwards, a lookin’ on sunthin’ I couldn’t see if I had both eyes to my specks; to see that lofty brow crowned with the Star of Empire, and that majestic form a floatin’ in triumph from the Atlantic over the Rocky mountains, clear to the Golden Gate, while the radiance of that star, a burnin’ on that almost inspired forward, sheds alight over the deep waters to some still grander future” (Holley, 1878, 87). The description of this transcendent figure is left completely abstract; besides the use of the female pronoun, there is no indication of any specific form of embodiment. In its abstraction, this figure contrasts with the sensuous presence of the machinery as described by Holley and other commentators. Samantha also visits the “Careless Enjun,” traveling through “three avenues” that seemed to be “forty miles in length” to reach the Machinery Hall (Holley, 1878, 116). There, she encounters the tremendous machine producing “the noise of seventy or eighty thunder claps … and several Niagara Falls,” along with “big wheels a turnin’ little wheels, and little wheels a turnin’ big ones,” and “such a glitterin’ of glass and gildern’ and colours of all kinds,” an incomprehensible wave of mechanical sensations that contrasts with the ephemeral unreality of the female figure she had imagined earlier. Samantha feels that she does not belong in Machinery Hall, and desires to flee, yet this is the place where she produces a much more tangible representation of the future. In contrast, when she tries to imagine a human figure striding forward into the national future, she can only conjure the most intangible of images.

15Another popular writer of the time, James McCabe, described the Exhibition as a “world within itself” that left visitors “bewildered” with its variety of beautiful and novel sights (McCabe, 1876, 5). According to McCabe, the Corliss Engine appeared as an “iron and steel giant” which controlled a “perfect labyrinth of mechanism.” Like Howells, McCabe does not mention the human engineers behind the engine, but focuses on the machine’s apparently intrinsic ability to take on super-human qualities: “though fancy or imagination pictured the grim colossus as working harder than ever, its movement was almost noiseless.” Oddly anthropomorphic but decidedly inhuman, either thunderously noisy (in Holley’s fictional account) or preternaturally quiet, the Corliss Engine exemplifies the quality of separation and difference from the outside world that pervades representations of the Exhibition. The act of entering the Exhibition grounds constitutes the kind of border crossing that Armstrong and Tennenhouse see in the earlier novels of population, but in this case the boundary is one demarcating a new experience of time.

16As Rydell argues, the Centennial was so successful that it became a paradigm for subsequent expositions. Hence, two decades later we find Clarence Clough Buel offering a similarly inhuman picture of the great Columbian Exposition of 1893, writing in the Century magazine that the Manufactures Building in Chicago was so vast that “It is believed that half a million people could find standing room on its 30 ½ acres of floor space, increased by the side galleries to 44 acres; and it was demonstrated at the October ceremonies that 100,000 people, with all they could sing and say, were lost in its vast interior” (Buel, 1893, 617). Although both Howells and Buel describe large numbers of visitors to these two major exhibitions, both writers emphasize the way in which these large crowds were dwarfed by the great scale of the exhibition grounds. Because of their grand scale, the grounds and buildings seemed empty despite their many visitors. Though staged two decades apart, these exhibitions are linked thematically as commemorations of culturally important spans of time: the 100 years of national independence, and the 400 years since the first voyage of Columbus to America. Thus, the preoccupation of exhibition planners and visitors alike with the vast spaces of the exhibition grounds reflects an equally strong interest in significant expanses of time. The spaces of these exhibitions were intended to evoke a sense of historical monumentality; and their success is attested by the descriptions of visitors.

Time without People

  • 6 For the history of the proposal to build the Centennial Tower by the engineering firm of Clarke, Re (...)
  • 7 While this essay focuses on the American context, there are obvious parallels between the imagined (...)

17If, as Chadbourne averred, Americans had only learned what it meant to be a nation at the close of their first century of independence, then the period’s celebratory exhibitions seemed to represent that nationhood in terms of progress into an expansive future time in which notions of personhood would be refigured. The January, 1874 cover of Scientific American featured a drawing of a proposed 1,000 foot high tower for the Centennial Exhibition [figure 3]. Though the tower was never built, the drawing anticipates the inscription that would appear at the entrance to the Egypt Section by juxtaposing the modern tower with the pyramids. The drawing also juxtaposes the tower to other monuments such as the United States Capitol, one of the tallest buildings in America, and the Gothic cathedral at Cologne, Germany and the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, among the loftiest structures in the world at that time. Their height made these structures appropriate context for the illustration of a tower that would have been the tallest in the world by far.6 However, these and the other buildings featured in the illustration also allude to an age of faith in providence and human worth. The tower, in contrast, represents the future through its open metal framework, within which not a human figure can be found. Indeed, the lack of human figures is a notable but easily overlooked aspect of the drawing. Buildings such as capitols and cathedrals are centres of human activity; it would be difficult, however, to imagine what human activities might take place within the Centennial Tower.7

Figure 3.

Cover of Scientific American, January 24, 1874, showing the proposed 1,000-foot Centennial Tower.

18A monumental tower was not only planned but actually built for the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Hubert Howe Bancroft’s popular Book of the Fair described the clock tower as the dominant feature of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building:

Entering through any of the numerous portals, we presently find ourselves at the spot where Columbia avenue is intercepted by the transverse nave, each fifty feet in width. Here, in the centre of the great circular court which surrounds the point of intersection, flanked by the exhibits of the United States, of Germany, Great Britain, and France, the first thing that strikes the eye is a clock tower of elaborate design, 40 feet square at the base and 125 in height, with four entrance ways, separated by corner pavilions. From one of these pavilions, stairways lead to the third floor, with access by ladders to the clock floor above. The clock, which serves as the official timepiece of the department, is worked by electricity, with dials seven feet in diameter, and above it, on still another floor, is a chime of bells, set in motion by its machinery, and whose music may be heard afar over the waters of the White City, the bells being set in motion by its machinery and by a keyboard in the jewelry section, with which it is connected by electric wires. (Bancroft, 1893, 142)

19Bancroft’s description leaves the impression of gigantic machinery moving, electricity flowing, and music playing, all without the need for human participation. Human beings are not mentioned at all, though one imagines that they might climb the tower’s ladders in order to indulge in their wonder at the spectacle of massive, inhuman forces embodied in the tower. As Bancroft’s description suggests, the Chicago clock tower was typically pictured as dwarfing humanity, as in this illustration from an 1893 issue of Scientific American [figure 4]. Not only did this tower dominate Columbia Avenue, the major street running the length of the immense Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, its mechanism also regulated, via electrical wires, a whole network of 200 other clocks stationed at different places throughout the White City. The tower’s network of regulated clocks was described as a “master-slave” system, an appellation that gives a sense of how its particular expression of monumental time connected national power to the lives of the people. Indeed, the Self-Winding Clock Company constructed the tower in order to advertise the usefulness of its master-slave system in regulating labor and commerce on a national scale. Scientific American informed its readers that “The system which is thus illustrated in this exhibit of the Self-Winding Clock Company is an accurate representation of the system developed by them in connection with the Western Union Telegraph Company for a uniform time service and which, in extent, embraces the whole of the United States. […] Public and private buildings, jewelers, banks, commercial institutions, factories, railroads and schools have the most accurate time available” (anon., 1893, 68-69). This representation of monumental time thus celebrates the nation as a utopia comprised of technological marvels and natural forces such as electricity that seems to require no human antecedent or continuing presence, except perhaps as slaves devoid of agency.

Figure 4.

Cover of Scientific American, July 29, 1893, showing the tower of the Self-Winding Clock Company, Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

20Marietta Holley captured this sense of the social implications of coordinated time on a monumental scale in a second comic travel narrative, Samantha at the World’s Fair, a smashing popular success that sold over 70,000 copies (Epp, 2012, 367). Upon first entering the Chicago exposition grounds, Holley’s fictional narrator Samantha compares the entire White City to the workings of a mechanical timepiece, writing that the Administration Building “is like a main spring to a watch, or the pendulum to a gigantic clock—it regulates the hull [whole] of the rest of the works” (Holley, 1893, 227-228). Samantha goes on to idealize the monumental grandeur of the Administration Building as the “gate-way” to the wonders of the White City, describing how “as you stood inside of that dome and looked wayup, up, up towards the top, your feelin’s [sic] soared to the extent that it almost took you offen your feet” (Holley, 1893, 220). The feeling of abstraction from self described here captures something of the enigma of the movement of population through the exhibitions. While the exhibitions organized human beings into crowds, those crowds were lost in the vast spaces, and hence the strong sense of human presence conveyed by the single protagonist of a domestic novel, in which the individual’s capacious interior is explored in all its complexity, was lost amidst the architecture and machinery.

21Henry Adams’s well-known reaction to the exposition as a “rupture in historical sequence” also educed this sense of how monumental technology organized human visitors into crowds. While Adams lamented the crisis this revolution posed to his “personal universe,” he acknowledged the power of the vast machinery and buildings to create a “unity” in the American people. While the crowds “knew no more than he did,” they nonetheless drifted toward the future at the behest of dimly felt forces, in much the same way “as their solar system was said to be drifting towards some point in space” (Adams, 1918, 340, 343). Adams’s language of reluctant technophilia picks up on the feeling of eros that many of his contemporary observers derived from the linkage between time and technology. Since the Education was written a decade later, the reiteration of these tropes suggests their power to shape and define memories of the Exhibition, even in so careful and critical an observer as Adams.

22While many Americans experienced monumental time by traveling to the great exhibitions or by reading the accounts of visitors such as Howells, Buel, McCabe, or the fictional Samantha, others found monumental time coming to them in the curious vogue of massive, elaborate “historical clocks.” As Michael O’Malley and Carlene Stephens explain, “Between roughly 1875 and the turn of the century, more than two dozen such giants appeared and toured throughout the United States and Europe” (O’Malley and Stephens, 1990, 3). All of these clocks featured similar combinations of patriotic icons, moving historical figures, astronomical indicators, and relatively small but functional clock faces. They were constructed by craftsmen who usually worked alone, many of them immigrants to the United States. They typically toured small-town America, and were not usually displayed at the great exhibitions of the era. By the 1890s a few corporations had begun to see marketing potential in these novelties, and the Chicago Exposition featured not only the tower of the Self-Winding Clock Company but also the massive, twenty-foot high Century Clock of the Waterbury Watch Company. McCrossen connects this phenomenon to a trend in civic life to add unusually massive clocks to significant buildings in cities across America; both the travelling monumental clocks and the newly enlarged generation of public clocks “connected ordinary Americans, most of whom owned one sort of mechanical timepiece or another, to a scheme in which clock time took on historic and cosmic meanings” (McCrossen, 2013, 145).

23The Great Historical Clock of America, constructed by an unknown artisan, displays many of the common features of monumental clocks. The thirteen-foot tall structure incorporates moving miniatures, cosmological measurements, and symbols of American nationalism into the theme of passing time represented by the functional mechanical clock at its center [figure 5]. The clock must have been completed around 1893, since it features a moving procession of American presidents that concludes with Benjamin Harrison. The clock also includes a number of other miniature human figures as well as small panel paintings of important historical events. However, as in many of the representations of clocks and machinery at the great exhibitions, in the Great Historical Clock human beings are present only in miniature, and the significance of their activities is thrown into question. As the clock moves, the mechanical figures enact vignettes suggestive of the relationship between present time and history. For example, one set of miniatures depicts continental troops marching in review before George Washington. Following the troops come a line of US presidents from John Adams to Benjamin Harrison. Washington reviews these latter-day presidents, measuring them against his eternal standard. The cyclical progression of presidents before the unchanging Washington suggests that the appearance of change within historical time is an illusion; in contrast to the flux of human activity in everyday life, national time progresses on a scale too vast to perceive.

Figure 5.

The Great Historical Clock of America, about 1890. 13' X 8' X 4'. Division of Work & Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Permission granted by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. 

  • 8 For descriptions and photographs of the features of the Great Historical Clock of America, see Mayr (...)

24The Great Historical Clock’s other features develop this dichotomy between the monumental historical time of the nation and the changeable, diminutive experience of individual human beings. Allegorical figures representing the days of the week rotate above the US coat of arms. The “Grand Orrery” charts the signs of the zodiac and the passing of the seasons. Paintings illustrate scenes from the American past, such as the pilgrims landing at Plymouth and Fulton piloting the Clermont up the Hudson. Depictions of the four ages of man (infancy, childhood, maturity, and old age) rotate above the clock face, while below cycle the phases of the moon. The design of The Great Historical Clock represents the progress of the nation away from the mythic past, through time, and into the future as an amalgamation of individual days, soldiers, stars, moons, presidents, and hours. Time in the Great Historical Clock is dichotomous: the linear, fungible, secular time of everyday life is foregrounded against the vast, cosmic, cyclical time of the past and future. The Great Historical Clock of America thus employs miniature figures of human beings precisely to suggest the diminutive insignificance of human activity in the face of monumental time. Because everything that the human figures do is subsumed within the massive operation of the clockwork mechanism, all human agency is removed from history. The clock appears to celebrate the nation, but it certainly does not represent that object of celebration as a product of human agency.8

  • 9 The Waterbury Watch Company’s Century Clock. Archives of the National Museum of American History, S (...)

25The Century Clock of the Waterbury Watch Company makes the same point even more recursively by depicting miniature workers ostensibly labouring in the Waterbury company’s own factory. “The first feature to attract attention,” explains a pamphlet created by Waterbury to publicize the Century Clock, “is a group of twenty-five moving figures in the lower front of the clock. They are some six inches high, carved in solid cherry, delicately colored, and so life-like in their movements that it seems like a real scene from Gulliver’s Travels.” While the “life-like” quality of the figures might suggest that human activity does play an important role in this clock’s representation of a century of American time, the fact that the figures are explicitly meant to be seen as Lilliputian miniatures renders them quaint and powerless. The pamphlet goes on to make clear that the small size of the figures is the key to their meaning: “The lively Lilliputians represent operatives at work in the train-room of the model American watch factory where the Quick-Winding Waterbury is made. Each one is at her own particular work, engaged in the identical process carried on in the factory itself. At night, when the tiny electric lamps illuminate the busy scene, it is life itself in miniature.”9 Given the clock’s great height, these six-inch figures would have appeared puny indeed. The Century Clock also featured celebratory scenes from national history such as the surrender of Cornwallis and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In this respect, it expresses an idea about national history similar to that of the Great Historical Clock of America, and perhaps even of Field’s Historical Monument of the American Republic. However, it is in the moving miniature figures laboring in the watch factory that the clock performs its most significant ideological work. Because the movements of the figures are controlled by the clockwork mechanism, the Century Clock actually reverses the reality of its own design and construction. While this clock, like all machines, was produced by human labor and ingenuity, the movements of the clockworks suggest that human labor is a product of the automatic movement of a powerful machine. Rather than people making clocks and watches, the Century Clock suggests, such machines simply employ human labor as a medium for reproducing themselves.

Temporal Order

26Along with the metaphor of the “master-slave’ relationship used to describe the clockwork system of the Chicago Exposition, these monumental clocks convey a powerful message about human agency in an era defined by technology. The monumental clocks were constructed, and the exhibitions planned and staged, during a period that has often been described by scholars as one in which Americans set about creating new, more rational and homogeneous systems of spatial and temporal organization for the nation. This “search for order,” in Robert Wiebe’s famous phrase, encompassed both specific events such as the imposition of standard time zones across the space of North America by the railroads in 1883 as well as more general trends such as the rise of a managerial ethos in business and government. In many respects, the exhibitions provided focal points for these processes, their carefully planned spaces and impressive arrays of technological, industrial, and artistic productions redacting and intensifying the transformations taking place at greater scale across the nation. As Rydell observes, the exhibitions shared a “didactic mission” that involved educating the public about the progressive nature of American civilization (Rydell, 1984, 7). Part of this pedagogy evidently focused on the extensive project of imposing order upon the world.

  • 10 Compare Hepp’s argument with that of Wiebe, 1966.

27However, the curiously inhuman quality that many contemporary observers discovered in the exhibitions and other temporal markers of the time raises important questions about the cultural meaning of this fundamental reorganization. Wiebe attributes the postbellum impulse to impose such rational standards upon the world to anxieties over racial, ethnic, and economic tensions in American society. More recently, John Henry Hepp has offered a “case study of Philadelphia” to support a more affirmative view of the period as one in which the middle class rationalized both time and space to create a “cultural sense of order” that supported “faith in continued progress” (Hepp, 2003, 7, vii).10 While these works offer significantly different interpretations of the era’s cultural history, they hold in common an assumption that the period’s development of technological innovations and industrial techniques must have been fundamentally humanist in character. It is this assumption of an underlying humanism in the search for order that is belied by the responses of many observers to the exhibitions.

28In the portrayals of writers such as Bancroft and the anonymous writer for Scientific American, the White City’s timekeeping practice became an intensified microcosm of the larger scale changes taking place across America. As McCrossen points out, in the very period “Clocks in public spaces […] spun a thin, but resilient, tie binding Americans to one another. Uniform, homogenized standard time knit the expanding sphere of clocks into a web of common time that helped foment national and urban identities” (McCrossen, 2007, 222). As both Wiebe and Rydell have emphasized, such efforts to impress orderly paradigms upon the larger world outside the fairgrounds were always imposed upon a social and economic reality that was considerably more turbulent. Thus, the regulation of time in the White City represents a utopian fantasy of a kind of alternative America, located just in the future, where social and economic conflict would be mitigated.

29In identifying inhumanity as an important quality of many of the period’s commentaries on the significance of industry and technology, I do not mean to assert that the essentially humanist framework established by Wiebe and his successors is unfounded. Rather, I wish to point out the existence of a countervailing, equally important impulse in many of the period’s cultural productions. Along with the important tendency to celebrate the human capacity to impose order on the world, many of the period’s cultural productions evince an antithetical inclination to represent technological and industrial achievements as powerful, rational, and lacking in humanity. The second of these impulses coexists with the first, as we see in the case of the exhibitions, where the planners anticipated vast crowds assembling to celebrate human achievement, but many observers elicited a very different meaning from the actual experience of attendance.

  • 11 Nye follows Kant in describing the sublime experience as one that ultimately affirms the superiorit (...)

30In some respects, this phenomenon can be understood as an example of what David Nye described as the “technological sublime.” The monumental representations of time that flourished in the late nineteenth century are especially resonant with Nye’s description of the mathematical sublime, a form of sublime experience that Kant defined as emanating from the contemplation of an object of awesome size. Nye focuses on monumental buildings such as skyscrapers and technological feats such as the steamboat and the telegraph in his discussion of the American mathematical sublime. He describes how the immensity of the modern city often seemed to render human beings small and insignificant. Immense clocks and exhibition spaces might be understood similarly. However, there is an important distinction. In Nye’s analysis, “[t]he awe induced by seeing an immense or dynamic technological object became a celebration of the power of human reason, and this awe granted special privilege to engineers and inventors” (Nye, 1994, 60).11 As we have seen, writings about monumental time in the centennial era were notably silent when it came to mentioning the names of engineers; for Howells, the Corliss engine might have evoked the sublime, but this potential had nothing to do with the unmentioned name of inventor George Henry Corliss. In the case of monumental time, the sublimity of the experience was not coupled with glorification of human capability. And yet, in a manner somewhat similar to that which Nye described in relation to the sublime, it could be said that the contemplation of time on a vast scale evoked a sense of longing and pleasure in observers.

31When considered in light of such aesthetic pleasure, we can see that encounters with monumental time did not depict industry and technology as antagonistic to humanity. From the early moment in which Charles Dudley Warner and Mark Twain published The Gilded Age (1873), it quickly became the conventional wisdom to think of this period as one in which industry and technology affronted and undermined humanist values; scholars such as Jackson Lears have explored the ways in which cultural movements such as Arts and Crafts reaffirmed those threatened values by espousing a preindustrial ethos. It is not this “antimodernism,” as Lears calls it, that the comments on the exhibitions by Howells and Buel evoke. Rather, much more strikingly, representations in this mode simply depict a world of machines and industrial products in which humanity is largely absent and, when present, plays a passive role. Far from critical, such depictions are typically admiring, as in Howells’s sketch of the “majesty of the great Corliss Engine.” There is nothing alarming in Howells’s portrayal; in fact, it is glamorized, even erotic, making the Corliss Engine into an “athlete of steel and iron without a superfluous ounce of metal on it,” upon whose “giant’s body” the indolent engineer occasionally applies drops of oil (Howells, 1876, 96). The inhuman scale and power of the machine, along with its precise engineering and lack of disorderly flesh, render it beautiful, even desirable. The inhumanity of the national future becomes a paradoxical object of human longing.

Big History, Long Now

  • 12 The information about the clock presented here is drawn from

32What does this strange act of temporal imagination tell us about contemporary efforts to expand the scale of historical time into “Big History”? Part of the answer is suggested by a currently active project of monumental clock technology, the Clock of the Long Now [figure 6]. Thus far, this clock exists only in the form of a prototype designed by engineer Danny Hillis and fabricated by the Long Now Foundation, a think tank of sorts created in San Francisco by a group of successful technology entrepreneurs. According to Stewart Brand, one of the group’s co-founders, the goal of the Long Now Foundation is to shift human thinking to a scale that transcends not only the individual lifetime but even the spans of several generations that represent the limit of conventional historical thinking (Brand, 2008). Long Now theorists imagine an ideal society in which individuals would contextualize their own daily activities within a temporal framework extending thousands of years, at least. The prototype of the Clock of the Long Now encourages us to think in terms of a 10,000 year time frame by marking the years in a five digit notation.12 Hence, the final year of the last millennium would be written as 02000.

Figure 6.

The Long Now Foundation, The Clock of the Long Now. Science and Society Picture Library, the Science Museum

Permission granted by the Picture Library of the Science Museum London. 

33The Clock of the Long Now presents a fashionable synthesis of technophilia and ecological consciousness. In many respects this kind of thinking simply reproduces, on the one hand, religious aspirations toward transcendence of secular time, and on the other hand, scientific awareness of the long spans of time involved in natural history—the “deep time” of natural history, discussions of which fill the first few chapters of books on “Big History.” However, what is interesting about the Long Now Foundation’s program is the linkage of transhuman time with technology, a linkage that should seem familiar to us from the centennial era. Danny Hillis, who originated the idea for the clock, describes the notion of long duration as incompatible with human activity.

Ten thousand years—the life span I hope for the clock—is about as long as the history of human technology. We have fragments of pots that old. Geologically, it’s a blink of an eye. When you start thinking about building something that lasts that long, the real problem is not decay and corrosion, or even the power source. The real problem is people. If something becomes unimportant to people, it gets scrapped for parts; if it becomes important, it turns into a symbol and must eventually be destroyed. (Hillis, 1995)

34Hence, Hillis has proposed designing a clock that requires no human maintenance, and then hiding it in the desert. In this respect, the Clock of the Long Now echoes and amplifies a way of conceptualizing time that flourished in the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century. The images of the clock prototype developed by the Long Now Foundation are seductively beautiful, as tantalizing as the “athletic” body of the Corliss Engine described by Howells. The image of a beautiful machine transporting our ideas (if not our bodies) into the future is a compelling one.

  • 13

35The fantasy of a technology that would mark time beyond human endurance or comprehension is created by human beings themselves, and of course human beings do this in order to serve particular ends. The theorists of the Long Now Foundation have made their ends explicit: to build “a monumental scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock as an icon to long-term thinking.”13 How something could be both hidden and also a monumental icon seems a somewhat problematic aspect of the program, but the fact that this contradiction does not seem important to these theorists in fact points toward the inhumanity of their conception of time. Technology no longer needs human beings to continue into the future, this clock seems to say. As “the world’s slowest computer,” the Clock of the Long Now will mark the time of a new form of thinking.

36Or will it? I want to suggest that, as one version of a recurrent aspiration we can trace through deep time and the Annales school back to the nineteenth century, the Clock of the Long Now speaks to our abiding desire to imagine our own dissolution within time. In Maps of Time, David Christian describes his project as a “modern creation myth,” a story of our origins playing out across the vastness of cosmic time (Christian, 2011, 493). Hence, just as the domestic novel produces in its readers a powerful, intoxicating experience of individual depth, worth, and complexity within tiny moments of richly detailed time, narratives of temporal grandeur evoke a complementary rapture of loss of self, Samantha’s feeling of floating upward into the sublime machinery. Monumental time serves the interest of the administrative state, the need to manage population and facilitate the transport of groups of people not only across the geography of the nation but also through the framework of a shared national history. But it also offers to the individual the eros of unbecoming, the loss of self in the collectivity of population and the reunion of consciousness with its own productions, the beautiful machines of a future time.

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1 With total attendance approaching nine million, the Centennial Exhibition was one of the best-attended fairs staged in any country during the nineteenth century. For overall attendance, see Rydell, 1984, 10. For attendance figures broken down by month, see McCabe, 1876, 848.

2 The Centennial Eagle was a newspaper published in Philadelphia during the period of the Centennial Exhibition.

3 For examples of “Big History,” see Christian, 2011, and Brown, 2008. The concept of “la longue durée” comes from Braudel, 1958. On “deep time,” see McPhee, 1982, and Gould, 1987.

4 See also the discussion by John Marx of how the postcolonial novel can be understood as “more interested in producing managers than citizens,” a position Marx relates to the analysis of Armstrong and Tennenhouse (Marx, 2012, 87).

5 As Holley’s biographer Kate Winter explains, the “P.A.” of the book’s title stands for “Promiscuous Advisor” while “P.I.” stands for “private investigator” (Winter 64).

6 For the history of the proposal to build the Centennial Tower by the engineering firm of Clarke, Reeves, and the financial difficulties that made the plan impossible to realize, see Winpenny, 2000. Winpenny points out the comparison between the tower’s height and that of St. Peter’s and the cathedral at Cologne.

7 While this essay focuses on the American context, there are obvious parallels between the imagined Philadelphia tower and the tower Gustave Eiffel designed for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

8 For descriptions and photographs of the features of the Great Historical Clock of America, see Mayr and Stephens, 1990, 42-43; O’Malley and Stephens, 1990; and anon., 1981.

9 The Waterbury Watch Company’s Century Clock. Archives of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Warshaw Business Americana Collection, Watches and Clocks, Box 4, Waterbury folder. See also O’Malley and Stephens, 1990, 10 and 15.

10 Compare Hepp’s argument with that of Wiebe, 1966.

11 Nye follows Kant in describing the sublime experience as one that ultimately affirms the superiority of human reason.

12 The information about the clock presented here is drawn from


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Thomas Allen, « Toward Endless Life: Population, Machinery, and Monumental Time »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 janvier 2016, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Thomas Allen

University of Ottawa

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