A Quickie History of the Fast Lane

Notable pit-stops along the march of time

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From the time of Caesar to Napoleon’s day, the top speed at which people, goods, and information can travel stays essentially the same: the pace of a swift horse or a good boat in a strong wind.

Late 1700s—Improvements in upholstery technology in France allow stagecoaches to pick up speed; an increase in road deaths is one immediate result.

Early 1800s—The modern age arrives in a cloud of steam as railroads and steamships dramatically accelerate the speed of transportation—and of life itself. Some naysayers worry that train passengers might suffer crushed bones from traveling at speeds as high as 35 m.p.h. That particular fear turns out to be unfounded, but the death rate speeds up dramatically nonetheless, thanks to train wrecks and boiler explosions.

1830s—European visitors are fascinated by the frantic pace of life in the United States. An English observer notes that the average New Yorker “always walks as if he had a good dinner before him, and a bailiff behind him.” Another visitor describes American eating habits as “Gobble, gulp, and go.”

1850s—A Swedish visitor to the U.S. Patent Office notes that of the nearly 15,000 machines registered, most are “for the acceleration of speed, and for the saving of time and labor.”

1876—Invention of the telephone permits, for the first time in history, instantaneous responses to someone more than a few yards away.

1876—Wind-up alarm clocks are introduced by Seth Thomas. Punctuality takes a big stride forward now that there’s no longer any excuse for being late to work.

1883—Life in the U.S. is still slow-paced enough that each town sets its own time. New Orleans, for instance, is 23 minutes behind Baton Rouge. Under pressure from the railroads, the federal government creates time zones, and soon everyone’s watches are synchronized.

1883—Fredric W. Taylor pioneers industrial time management, a system that allows bosses to dictate workers’ movements, down to the smallest twist or turn, to maximize efficiency and boost speed.

1890s—The golden age of the bicycle. Some warn that these new vehicles, which move at a pace four times faster than walking, will bring about an epidemic of “bicycle face” (permanent disfigurement caused by pedaling into the wind at high speeds). Others are more concerned about the moral implications, since bicycles make it easier for young lovers to rendezvous out of sight of parents and guardians.

1892—An English medical study notes a leap in deaths from cancer and heart disease between the 1860s and 1880s, a period that corresponds with a dramatic increase in the tempo of English life.

1896—Guglielmo Marconi unveils his wireless telegraph, which makes it possible to speak to millions of people at the same moment.

1898—There are fewer than 30 working automobiles in the United States. A decade later there are at least 700 car factories nationwide and the pace of life goes into overdrive.

1899—The leisurely 3/4 time of the waltz is on the way out as Scott Joplin publishes the bouncy ragtime classic “Maple Leaf Rag.” Ragtime will be followed by ever-accelerating forms of music: jazz, boogie woogie, rock ‘n’ roll, disco, punk, speed metal, and, finally, techno (which races along at 200 beats per minute).

1909—Futurist poet Filippo Marinetti declares a new aesthetic: “We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

1913—Henry Ford introduces the assembly line, cutting the time it takes to produce a car from 14 person-hours to just 2.

1914—Swift new communications technology helps ignite World War I. After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Serbian diplomats, who were raised in the slow-moving era before telegraphs, are stymied by an ultimatum from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to give an explanation for the shooting within 48 hours or face invasion. The Serbs miss the deadline, and the war is on.

1922—The 1920s roar forward, with advertising setting the pace. A Dupont ad celebrates the time-saving genius of the chemical engineer: “It is he who has helped make your minutes as long as your great grandfather’s hours.”

1931—The legendary “Speed Ball” is held at London’s Dorchester Hotel to celebrate the fact that Britons hold world speed records on land, air, and sea. The old nobility of landed gentry mix with new nobility of mobility, including Sir Malcolm Campbell, who will later set both land and water speed records.

1937—Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is a phenomenal best-seller, in large part because it shows time-starved readers how to make friends in a hurry.

1940s—The advanced mass production techniques that helped win World War II are applied to civilian life. Now even towns can be quickly mass produced, notably instant suburbs such as Levittown, Pennsylvania. But some critics complain that these new towns aren’t really communities; they’re merely a collection of houses thrown up hastily without paying attention to the important connecting tissue of neighborhood shops and public life.

1951—Long-distance dialing is introduced, bringing the whole nation within earshot.

1953—Carl Swanson introduces the first TV dinner: turkey, gravy, cornbread, peas, and sweet potatoes.

1958—Cosmopolitan predicts that in the future we will spray the aroma of bacon frying or fresh-baked bread around our kitchens as we prepare dinner in the microwave. They’re only half right. Everyone’s in too much of a hurry to bother with the smells.

1960s—People are beginning to wonder what happened to all the leisure promised by time-saving devices. Studies show that the amount of time spent on household chores has dropped a bit since the 1930s, but driving, shopping, and longer hours at work have more than filled up the time.

1964—Bob Dylan turns the Beatles on to pot, an early sign of the soon-to-be-widespread marijuana craze. For the first time in a century a social trend seems to turn its back on speed in favor of “mellowing out.”

1971—Madison Avenue realizes that faster-paced TV ads can make the same pitch in half the time. Almost overnight the standard one-minute commercial shrinks to 30 seconds and, according to time expert Ralph Keyes, the tempo of American life will never be the same again. By the 1980s, many commercials will be 15-second furies of fast-talking salesmanship.

1973—Federal Express service begins, further quickening the pace at which white-collar America works.

1970s—The drug culture gets in step with the rest of society as the buzz of cocaine replaces the low-key mood of marijuana as the high of choice.

1982—The bottom drops of out of the cake mix market, as overextended homemakers can no longer spare a half-hour to bake premixed cakes.

1980s—The nanosecond, a measure of time lasting one-billionth of a second, debuts. “This marks a radical turning point in the way human beings relate to time,” says Jeremy Rifkin, author of Time Wars. A snap of your fingers takes 500 million nanoseconds.

Mid-1980s—Fax machines become commonplace. Suddenly Fed Ex seems tortoiselike.

Late 1980s—The cellular phone hits the market. At first, everyone makes fun of self-important yuppies making calls from their BMWs, but before long these phones become indispensable.

1990s—Widespread use of e-mail makes sending a fax seem like a waste of time.

1990s—The duration of the average business lunch—no longer the three-martini variety—has been downsized to 36 minutes, according to Fast Company magazine.

Sources: Much of the timeline information came from Timelock: How Life Got So Hectic and What You Can Do About It by Ralph Keyes (1991, HarperCollins) and The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern (1983, Harvard University Press).