Time and Tide

How the steam engine unmade time.

I live in the village of Kingston on the west shore of Puget Sound opposite Seattle. Kingston was built on a bight of the shoreline called Appletree Cove, an anchorage well protected from the southerly gales of winter. It’s a general anchorage, meaning anyone can anchor as long as they wish without paying port fees or penalties. From the streets of the village you can see the white riding lights of the boats at anchor even in winter.

The village has always been backed by the forest but facing the sea. Shingles and lumber were originally freighted by schooner from the cove and later, produce from truck farms. Everything—people and passengers—were originally carried either under sail or under oars.

Commerce was paced by the wind and tide. A pig farmer from Kingston couldn’t promise to deliver twelve sows to Poulsbo at twelve on Tuesday the fourth. Tuesday, maybe. If not, then Wednesday or even Thursday, depending upon a fair wind and a favorable tide. It wasn’t until the invention of the steam engine that a boat could buck a headwind—or no wind—and keep her schedule despite the weather.

The steam engine was one of those pivotal inventions that changed the rhythm of our lives. It’s an historic watershed—or a wound. Before the steam engine, our lives were governed by wind and water, daylight and dark and the turning of the seasons. After the steam engine, the rule of mechanical time became absolute. We woke and worked and went to sleep by the ticking of the machine.

Joseph Conrad, among the foremost novelists of the 20th century, approached it from a slightly different perspective. Conrad was a sailor, rising through the ratings from ordinary seaman to captain, first onboard sailing ships, then steam ships. In his autobiography, The Mirror of the Sea, he wrote about the transition from sail to steam.

The machinery, the steel, the fire, the steam have stepped in between the man and the sea. A modern fleet of ships does not so much make use of the sea as exploit a highway. The modern ship is not the sport of the waves. Let us say that each of her voyages is a triumphant progress; and yet it is a question whether it is not a more subtle and more human triumph to be the sport of the waves and yet survive, achieving your end.

Having known both sail and steam intimately, Conrad condemned the latter. "…The seaman of the future shall be not our descendant, but only our successor."

The steam engine may also have loosed the storm of greed that has swept our culture and threatens our planet. It’s hard to imagine we could have become so thoroughly rapacious without its mechanical advantage. And it’s hard to imagine that we would have succumbed, as a people, to the servitude of greed without having first been enslaved by mechanical time, by the ticking of the machine and the factory whistle.

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