Bombay Time: Clock Work in the Colonial City, 1870-1955

As a tribute to senior historian Professor Jim Masselos, the Department of History at the University of Mumbai, the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London and the University of Leicester hosted a conference of historians, scholars and researchers of the city at Mumbai University on 6-7 January 2017. Click here to download my presentation (PDF) on “Bombay Time: Turning Back the Clock, 1870-1955”.

Modern clocks and standard world time signify two of the great historical movements in the nineteenth century – globalisation and imperialism – whose connected histories were first articulated in the cities of colonial India and South Asia.

The theory of the “global city” originally described urban centres such as New York, London and Tokyo as key nodes in the flows of global capital, whose management clusters people and technology in urban centres. Much like these contemporary hubs, port cities such as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were nodes in imperial networks of command and control which extended across South Asia during British rule. Early industrialisation in the 1860s and 1870s made urgent the coordination across expanding territorial and maritime frontiers opened up by new railway, telegraph and steamship networks across the Empire.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Bombay City had emerged as a crucial node and commercial gateway of the British Empire in western India and the Indian Ocean. Electrical transmission of precise time signals from observatories in colonial port cities made possible unprecedented, simultaneous communication across the subcontinent.

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