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October 7, 2003

A public radio commentary

Modern travel shows how technology shapes our culture, behavior, and perceptions. Think of what happens when you settle into the seat of an airplane: Usually you adjust your watch for a new time zone, then glance at it to see how much longer you'll be in the air, and likely you'll spend most of the trip reading, ignoring other passengers. The root of these behaviors lie in the 19th century and the rise of the railroad.

Time zones, for example, came about because of railroads. Prior to them every town had its own time; what difference did fifteen minutes make when it took a day or more to travel by stage coach? But rapid train travel needed standardized time. At first each rail company kept their own time - at the Pittsburgh station alone there were six different clocks - until the rail companies agreed to divide the continental United States into the four time zones we have today.

And think about why we look at our watches: We perceive our trip as two points - a beginning and and ending - which is very different from an eighteenth century traveller. We're thinking in terms of geography, not landscape. In a stage coach a passenger could study the landscape because the travel was so slow; a train or jet reduces this to a blur. So now, instead of thinking of the landscape during a journey, we ask geographical questions about its beginning and end; for example, how far are we from the end of our trip? Not only did rapid travel change our sense of time, it also changed our relationship to other passengers.

In a stage coach passengers would be together for many hours, perhaps even a day or two. Contrast this to a train, where the mix of passengers changes at every stop allowing little time to form a group or make a bond. Technology made travel dull in exact proportion to its rapidness and smoothness. They replaced the bumps of the stage coach with the uniform and hypnotic sound of the train, condemning a passenger to idleness.

To fight this boredom, I keep at home a small reserve of books for travelling. They require just enough concentration to keep me from being bored during a trip. In doing this I'm following a routine brought about in the 19th century by the boredom of train travel.

Railroads made, for the first time, reading while travelling became commonplace. Not long after railways developed in England, an entrepreneur named Smith began selling books and papers to travellers in a single English railway station, but so popular was his enterprise that within the year he expanded to the entire London and Northwest railways. His company is still around today.

The next time you're at a major airport look for a W.H. Smith newsstand.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises