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It is often said that the chief characteristic distinguishing the modern era from all previous history is the value put on time. Arguably this is just another way of demonstrating that capitalism has speeded up the world in a way our ancestors could not have imagined: the main point about industrial efficiency is that it saves time.

Chess being a cultural artefact, rather than just mathematics, is not immune from the historical process. Thus it is not surprising that 150 years ago next month there took place the first chess tournament with a time limit: the London chess tournament of June 1862 was part of the second Great Exhibition, designed to show the world the marvellous new technology of the British industrial revolution. Its chess tournament had its own innovation: the moves would all have to be played within a set time — to be precise, 24 moves every two hours. Sandglasses were used, one for each player.

This would have come as a shock to the notoriously slow German player Louis Paulsen (who finished second). He it was who took no fewer than 75 minutes to decide on a single move against Paul Morphy in the American Chess Congress of 1857. It is said that towards the end of this vast think, the usually imperturbable Morphy raised his eyebrows at his opponent, who then responded: "Oh — is it my move?" 

It was not until the 1880s that chess clocks were fully developed: these linked two clocks to a single mechanism, so that when one player presses the button on his side of the device, it stops his timer and starts his opponent's. The Dutch added the idea of a little red "flag", which would fall when the minute hand passes through the vertical. If that happens before the required number of moves are completed, then the offending player loses automatically "on time". Anyone who has played competitive chess will know the awful feeling as the "flag" begins to rise with many moves still to make before the time control. You want to keep your eyes and mind focused on the board, but somehow it is impossible not to keep glancing at the clock.

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