Schedules and punctuality: requirements of modernity

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)

(Image: Pixabay CC0)

If timetables and punctuality are an integral part of our society, it has not always been so. This is what Catherine Herr-Laporte, a doctoral student at the Chair in the History of Technology, has shown by studying the development of postal transport in France throughout the 18th century as part of her doctoral thesis on time and mobility. In her work, we discover why speed became a social, political and economic issue. And how temporal coordination contributed to the emergence of a new consciousness of time, the same one that laid the foundations of the modern state.

For a long time, the appearance of the railroad in the 19th century was perceived as a revolution in the field of transportation. However, Catherine Herr-Laporte reminds us that speed was already an issue in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin’s adage, ’ Time is money,’ was as true then as it is now," she notes. The same political and economic reasons were behind the desire for speed. ’

While she was initially interested in technical progress, whether in road infrastructure, vehicles or watchmaking, she gradually realized during her research that it was not these innovations that had saved time, but rather the organizational system and temporal coordination.While she was initially interested in technical progress, whether in road infrastructure, vehicles or watchmaking, she gradually realized, during her research, that it was not these innovations that had made it possible to save time, but rather the organizational system and temporal coordination. Indeed, in order to achieve this goal of speed, the activity of the postal administration was marked during the 18th century by multiple attempts to organize and coordinate its services. Travel was thus measured in hours rather than kilometers. Land transport was one of the fields in which a new conception of time slowly emerged: it was no longer just a duration, but a schedule, i.e. a measured time, increasingly precise. And schedules, with their deadlines and standards, will only work if everyone respects them: this is the emergence of punctuality. ’

Punctuality will be very important, as it becomes an essential prerequisite for the proper functioning of the modern state. Delays will have a direct impact on the economic level, but also on the political and administrative management of the country. The respect of schedules and the fear of delay show the internalization of time by the different actors, a sign of the emergence of a new consciousness of time. ’

In order to carry out her research, Catherine Herr-Laporte became interested in the French postal administration. The country lent itself particularly well to the development of this subject, because the postal administration was already centralized in the 18th century. The search for solutions to speed up transportation was therefore thought of on a country-wide scale, which facilitated the study of these mechanisms. In order to support her research, the historian extended her field of study to certain Swiss cantons, with which France was regularly exchanged, as well as to other countries.In order to support her research, the historian extended her field of study to certain Swiss cantons, with which France had regular exchanges, as well as to England, which had a postal institution that functioned in a similar way to the French system. The similarities and differences allowed me to better understand the logic at work on French territory. ’

Catherine Herr-Laporte, Being on time: a history of temporal coordination in land transport in France over a long eighteenth century, 2022


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