Time Is What Keeps Everything From Happening At Once

Albert Einstein? Ray Cummings? Mark Twain? Arthur C. Clarke? John Archibald Wheeler? Arthur Power Dudden? Susan Sontag?

Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein has received credit for a humorous remark about time:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. It is listed within a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest match known to QI appeared in 1919 within a story titled “The Girl in the Golden Atom” by Ray Cummings in the magazine “All-Story Weekly”: 2

“How would you describe time?”
The Big Business Man smiled. “Time,” he said, “is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
“Very clever,” said the Chemist, laughing.

The text above is from the 1970 reprint collection “Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of ‘The Scientific Romance'”. QI has not yet verified the quotation by directly examining the 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1921 the same author, Ray Cummings, included the quip in the story “The Time Professor” in “Argosy All-Story Weekly”: 3

“I do know what time is,” Tubby declared. He paused. “Time,” he added slowly—“time is what keeps everything from happening at once. I know that—I seen it in print, too.”

In 1922 Cummings combined two stories and expanded “The Girl in the Golden Atom” into a novel. The last line of the 1922 excerpt below differed slightly from the 1919 text: 4

“How would you describe time?”
The Big Business Man smiled. “Time,” he said, “is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
“Very clever,” laughed the Chemist.

In 1926 “The Norton Nugget” of Norton, Kansas printed the statement as an anonymous filler item. 5

In 1939 “The Arizona Daily Star” of Tucson, Arizona printed a note from a reader that included an instance. The word “one” was misspelled as “on”. 6

Silver Belle: Time is what keeps everything from happening at once, some bright on said. When I’m with you there’s no such thing as time.

In 1945 “The Dayton Daily News” of Ohio printed a letter to the editor containing the quip. The writer implausibly credited the famous humorist Mark Twain: 7

We Americans are too impatient to wait for events to shape themselves but must force the issue. Mark Twain said, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

In 1960 “The Observer” of London published an inquiry about the saying: 8

Sir,–Could anyone tell me the origin of the saying “Time is a device to prevent everything from happening at once.”?
Cambridge. Joan Robinson.

In 1962 prominent science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke printed a variant joke about space instead of time in his non-fiction book “Profiles of the Future”. Clarke specified an anonymous attribution: 9

Space, someone once remarked with great acuteness, is what stops everything from being in the same place. But suppose we want two things to be in the same place—or, better still, two places to be in the same place?

The idea that space is fixed, invariant, and absolute has taken a beating during the last fifty years, thanks largely to Einstein.

In 1973 syndicated columnist Herb Caen reported that an instance had appeared as a graffito in California: 10

Just as I was about to ask pertly, “Whatever happened to graffiti?”, attorney Lawrence Duga checks in with this, inscribed on a wall of Berkeley’s Yangtze River restaurant: “Time is Nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.”

In 1979 “1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles” compiled by John Peers included the following entry: 11

Hufstader’s Insight:
Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.

In 1984 a theological purpose was suggested by an instance printed by a columnist in a Waterloo, Iowa newspaper: 12

“Time is God’s way of not letting everything happen all at once.”

In 1989 the acclaimed physicist John Archibald Wheeler participated in a “Workshop on Complexity, Entropy, and The Physics Of Information”. Wheeler’s article included an instance of the saying with a footnote explaining that he had seen the statement as a graffito in Texas: 13

No space, no time. Heaven did not hand down the word “time.” Man invented it, perhaps positing hopefully as he did that “Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening all at once.” [6]

[6] Discovered among the graffiti in the men’s room of the Pecan Street Cafe, Austin, Texas.

Also in 1987 an article about humor by history professor Arthur Power Dudden in the “East-West Film Journal” presented an instance that referred to space and time: 14

A graffito expresses the matter admirably, on the wall in the men’s room I frequent (that one which regularly displays the most reliable telephone numbers) thus:

Time exists so that everything
doesn’t happen at once.
Space exists so that it doesn’t
all happen to you.

Influential essayist Susan Sontag employed a very similar instance within an essay that was collected and published posthumously in 2007: 15

There is an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy (as I was once myself), late one night, who had been struggling through Kant’s abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could he put much more simply.

It goes as follows:
“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once . . . and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

In conclusion, Ray Cummings should receive credit for the quip he wrote in 1919, 1921, and 1922. The attributions to Albert Einstein and Mark Twain are unsupported. John Archibald Wheeler, Arthur Power Dudden, and Susan Sontag employed instances, but each of them disclaimed credit. A similar remark about space was used by Arthur C. Clarke in 1962, but he also disclaimed credit.

(Great thanks to Brian M. Sutin whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to previous researchers. Fred R. Shapiro included the 1921 citation in “The Yale Book of Quotations”. He also posted a mailing list message in 2006 pointing to the possible 1919 citation. Thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who discussed this topic in the “Misattributed” section of the webpage for Albert Einstein. Wikiquote pointed to the 1921 citation and noted that the 1922 novel “The Girl in the Golden Atom” was constructed from two earlier short stories. Thanks to discussant Jonathan Lighter who mentioned that he heard a theological instance circa 1980.)

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Quote Page 481, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1970, Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines: 1912-1920, Edited by Sam Moskowitz, The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings (All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919), Start Page 175, Quote Page 205, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1921 January 8, Argosy All-Story Weekly, The Time Professor by Ray Cummings, Start Page 371, Quote Page 371, Column 2, The Frank A. Munsey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1922, The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings, Chapter 5: The World in the Ring, Quote Page 34, Methuen & Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1926 April 6, The Norton Nugget, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Norton, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1939 May 04, The Arizona Daily Star, Happy In Old Pueblo Days Be Seein’ You, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1945 February 10, The Dayton Daily News, (Letter to the Editor titled “A Long-Term Task” from W.P.), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1960 November 20, The Observer, Letters to the Editor, Quote Page 22, Column 6, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 7: World without Distance, Quote Page 77, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1973 January 11, The Honolulu Advertiser, San Francisco by Herb Caen, Quote Page E5, Column 5, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 83, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1984 December 27, The Courier, On the Outside: Seasons have their flaws by Scott Cawelti, Quote Page 4A, Column 2, Waterloo, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1990, Complexity Entropy And The Physics Of Information: The Proceedings of the 1988 Workshop on Complexity, Entropy, and The Physics Of Information, Held May-June, 1989 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Edited by Wojciech H. Zurek (Los Alamos National Laboratory and Santa Fe Institute), Volume 8, Article: Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links by John Archibald Wheeler (Physics Department, Princeton University) Start Page 3, Quote Page 10, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Redwood City, California. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  14. 1987 December, East-West Film Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, Special Issue on Humor in Cinema, The Dimensions of American Humor by Arthur Power Dudden, Start Page 3, Quote Page 9, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Verified with scans)
  15. 2007, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag, Edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump, At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning, Start Page 210, Quote Page 214, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. (Google Books Preview)