Selling Time

America had a problem. Clocks in use at the time were manually wound and imprecise. That had not been a problem until railroads began to cross the country. Train schedules needed to be precise, or train collisions would become a serious problem.

Samuel Langley saw an opportunity. He was an astronomer who had been named the Director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh. The Observatory had faced hard times. Equipment was broken. Langley was able to get some financial support from a local industrialist, but the money was still tight.

The answer to the observatory’s problem was also an answer to the nation’s lack of exact times. Langley used observations from the observatory to determine exact times. He created time zones across America that would provide some consistency with the beginning and ending of daylight.

Langley then determined the exact times twice per day and then sold these times to the railroads. The times were distributed by telegraph. The money earned from selling the times were used to upgrade the observatory. He continued to sell times for 15 years until the federal government took over this responsibility.

Ben Franklin originated the saying “Time is money”. He referred to the cost of sitting idle. He also thought that while you were working you wouldn’t be spending money. But he never made money off of time. What he did do was suggest that things we can’t possess and hold in our hands were worth something. It took Langley to make money off selling time.

What Langley didn’t realize was that he created a new form of commerce. Today, there are billions of financial transactions involving sales of things we can’t touch or possess.

There is a booming business in selling feel-good. Social media is essentially selling belonging. Fortunes are made by selling influence. The list is endless.

But there is one common thread in all of these sales of intangibles, and that is fear. Langley capitalized on the fear of trains colliding. Image, belonging, being left out and other fears drive the sales of those intangibles today. Unfortunately, the stereotypes used to sell those intangibles are the same strategies that are being used to sell those who we elect to represent us in our democracy.

* * *

“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent.” – Carl Sandburg

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.