The Edges of Time: Cornerstones and Time Capsules of Early Victoria

Theories and Perceptions of Time in the Victorian Era

What is time? Why is it important? Time is a difficult term to define. The Oxford English Dictionary defines time as, “a limited stretch or space of continued existence.” Many have theorized on the subject of time; however, there is still no agreement on exactly what time is. We count time with agreed upon counters yet we do not agree that time can be counted. Perceptions of time are shaped by current events; therefore, these perceptions change through the ages.

The Victorian perception of time changed with the railway. The steam engine was invented in 1782 and by the early 1800’s the first railways were created. By the Victorian era (1837 to 1901) railways existed in Britain. Prior to railways, time was measured more naturally by “local time.” However, railways required the use of “standard time” for the sake of precision. Due to the introduction of standard time, people of the Victorian era became more time conscious.

The first discoveries of Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) remains were found in the Victorian era. These were the first discoveries of their kind. Bodies, tools, and artifacts were found from a time that predated the current understanding of time. This forced people of the era to question their prior understanding of time.

Many who lived in the Victorian era also lived through the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution led many to look to the past as a safe refuge from the chaotic and harsh present. It became common to document the quickly receding past. Dora Panayotova in, “Time Perception in Nineteenth Century England” cites the harshness of the industrial revolution for the rise of autobiography, journaling, and diary writing in the Victorian era. Documenting the past was seen as the responsibility of people of the era. This documentation of time is also evidenced by time capsules.

Philosophers of the Victorian era that theorized time include Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860). Schopenhauer said, “time is the condition of the possibility of succession” which was in accordance with the work of the earlier philosopher Immanuel Kant. Nietzsche wrote of time as having a circular characteristic. Thus, there is an infinite past and an infinite future.

The debate surrounding time continues in the present day. In contemporary philosophy there are two main theories of time: Presentism and Externalism. According to presentism only the present exists. According to eternalism the past and the future are real but are not present to us. These two theories show us that after centuries of debate there is still no conclusive answer to the questions: What is time? Why is it important?