As you stand in the check-out line this holiday season, you may find yourself wondering why two minutes in a loud, crowded store can feel like an hour, or why an hour of relaxing with a good book can flit by in what feels like seconds. Why are we so bad as a species at tracking lengths of time?
In neuroscience, the prevailing strategy for understanding the "why" of any brain behavior is to think of it in terms of evolutionary advantage. What was life like back when humans were just starting to become humans? A lot of seemingly negative or unhelpful traits make sense in this context. There is a school of thought that the species might have benefited from some members of the tribe having ADHD, for instance. A dose of extra alertness or hyperactivity might hobble a desk worker, but it can be a godsend if you're hunting antelope.
So why are our internal clocks so terrible? To a people consumed by foraging, hunting, and gathering, the passing of 90 seconds or an hour was just not that important. Most of human history has not been counted in minutes. Luckily, the Swiss came along to help us out.
Next week, December 18, marks the 91st anniversary of the Denver Mint robbery. To be precise, it marks the robbing of a bank truck fresh from the Mint. From end to end, the crime took just 90 seconds, which, even in today’s fast-paced world of modern bank robbing, is still impressive.
Who was the mastermind? Herman "the Baron" Lamm, a German immigrant and former Prussian soldier who was kicked out of the Army for cheating at cards. He is also often credited as the father of modern bank robbery. In 1917, Lamm was rotting away in the Utah State Penitentiary for a failed bank robbery attempt. The Baron could have used this time to contemplate "going straight." Instead, he did something remarkable: he went pro.
Lamm spent his incarceration engineering a whole new kind of bank robbery: multiple getaway routes, specialized roles (point man, lookout, vault man, driver, backup driver), and meticulous planning. He would case a perspective bank for hours, detailing the comings and goings of bank employees and deliveries. (Later, John Dillinger, public enemy #1, would cite Lamm as his inspiration.)
After he got out of the Utah Pen, he carefully recruited a crack team of experts, and they practiced various scenarios, sometimes using a mock-up bank they constructed in an abandoned warehouse. They practiced until their operation ran with the precision of a Swiss watch—or a Prussian military exercise.
Lamm's rule was simple: 90 seconds was the absolute maximum length of time they could spend on any caper. No matter what stage the robbery was in, when a minute and a half ticked by, his team exited the bank. Their success or failure was determined by Lamm's wristwatch.
This served him well in the Denver Mint robbery and a string of other robberies across the US. Lamm finally met his demise following a bank heist in Indiana, where no amount of rehearsal could prepare his team for their run of slapstick-level bad luck.
First, the high-powered getaway car blew a tire when their driver cut a U-turn dodging an armed vigilante. So Lamm's crew seized another automobile, put the pedal to the metal—and discovered that this particular car had been rigged to go no faster than 35 miles an hour. (The owner had been worried about his elderly father's reckless driving.)
The solution was simple: steal another vehicle. So they nabbed a truck. When the truck turned out to have a hole in the radiator, they were forced to abandon it in favor of stealing a third car. Unfortunately, this car was filled with killer bees.
Just kidding: it was simply more or less out of gas.
Lamm and his team sputtered to a standstill near Sidell, Illinois, surrounded by 200 Indiana state police officers and vigilantes. What happened next is a matter of controversy. The police swore that Lamm, rather than face more prison time, took his own life. Needless to say, the autopsy reportedly showed the Baron’s body riddled with bullets, making his "suicide" all the more spectacular.
A dead bank robber might not seem like the most natural role model. But after an hour of holiday shopping drags into an afternoon, many of us can appreciate the bare-bones efficiency of Lamm’s 90 second rule.
Still, how much good did it do Lamm in the end? Maybe our ancestors were onto something, feeling no need to parse time into such finite increments. Has our desire to control and measure every second of our modern day lives really improved our situation?
The Swiss gave us watches and chocolate. At least one of those was a great invention.