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The development and expansion of railroads in the 19th century is largely responsible for our time zones today. Setting up time zones enabled us to establish a system of daylight saving time. Here’s an article I wrote and published to Helium writing site, now gone …

For centuries, cities and towns had set their clocks by the sun, with 12 noon corresponding to the sun’s highest point. Clocks to the east or west would show slightly different times. Solar noon varies by up to about half an hour over the course of a year. Some towns would change their clocks and others didn’t bother. Local mean time addressed some of these issues and was used in many places by the early nineteenth century. All this was fine in an era when people didn’t worry about exact time and where travel was by horse, carriage, or foot. The railroads brought pressure to standardize time across vast areas.

The world’s first system of standard time was in England when the Great Western Railway adopted London or Greenwich time in November 1840. Other railways soon followed and by 1847 most English rail timetables used Greenwich time. Initially, most communities didn’t change their clocks, keeping them on local time. After a period of confusion, with people missing their train or arriving too early, town clocks were altered to railway or Greenwich time. By 1855, an estimated 98 per cent of public clocks in Britain were set to this time, thus creating a single time zone for the entire country. The railways had forced the change.

America started building railroads at the same time as the English, around 1830. By 1860, the eastern third of the country was a spaghetti network of over 30,000 miles of track. A line to the west coast was laid in the 1860s, and the network continued to expand until it crisscrossed the whole country by the 1880s. Distances were immense compared with those in Britain and in 1870 the United States had 200 local times and 80 railroad times. This was despite certain railroads setting up regional time zones from the early 1850s, for example, New England, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Travelers from Maine in the east to California in the west still had to change their timepieces 20 times.

Train travel chaos was inevitable with such a system. Anyone planning a trip of any distance and who had to make connections to different lines needed a wad of timetables and the ability to perform complicated calculations to get to their ultimate destination at the desired time. Stations had clocks lined up along their walls showing the time of each rail company or line and perhaps local time. St Louis, for example, had six different railroad times. The time used by a train might be based on the local time where it originated, or where it terminated. And some cities and towns used local time while others used railway time or the time in a nearby larger centre. In the end, no one knew what the time was with any certainty.

Despite this, it was the responsibility of passengers to work out their trips. Train was the only viable method of long distance travel, there being no motor cars or airplanes. Business folk and other travelers had no choice. Getting to meetings or appointments on time was hit or miss. In addition, there were seven different track gauges in America in 1860. To try and resolve the time issue, people suggested a system similar to the one in Britain, where the local time for one place became the standard. But the local time difference between the eastern and western extremities of America exceeded three hours, too large an area to be lumped into one time zone.

Way before the railways, around 1809, amateur astronomer William Lambert had approached Congress to establish time zones based on meridians. Doubtless, many others had similar thoughts before the idea was taken up again around 1863 by educator Charles Dowd who proposed dividing the country into four time zones, each area differing by an hour from the next one. From 1869, he consulted with railroad companies, lectured, wrote newspaper and journal articles, and prepared detailed rail timetables. He produced a pamphlet, “A System of National Time for Railroads”, using Washington DC time as the base and took it to Congress in 1870, before completing a revised system in 1872 based on Greenwich time.

Dowd got support from other quarters. Railway companies and some public societies such as the Canadian Institute, the American Meteorological Society, and the Society of Civil Engineers took up the cause. People started suggesting railroad time be made the only time. This led to great controversy, with many stalwart civic leaders wanting to keep their own time as a matter of local pride. William Allen, secretary of the American Railroad Association, also lobbied long and hard for a system of time zones. He and Dowd finally got their way when a meeting of US and Canadian railroad company bosses in Chicago in 1883 decided to introduce a system of time zones. These were very close to what Dowd had proposed 11 years earlier. Another to play a key role was Sandford Fleming, who also led the move towards worldwide standard time zones in 1883.

The changeover to railway time zones was on Sunday 18 November 1883. It went remarkably smoothly and was called “The Day of Two Noons” by the press as people adjusted their timepieces at local noon to the new noon time within their new standard time zone. The four new zones were Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, and Mountain or Pacific. Many public institutions and jewelers also made the change.

Crowds gathered outside shop windows, or wherever they could find a clock, to witness the spectacle. Some were in awe and couldn’t quite understand how time could be stopped for up to half an hour or more, or how it could skip this interval, depending on the location. Others protested that man cannot change God’s time and were going to complain to their church and government. But there was no legislation or other government action to change the time. It was purely a collective decision by the railroad companies of the United States and Canada, and communities could follow it or stay on local time.

Initially, many towns and institutions retained local time alongside railroad standard time. But this didn’t last long. Within days, around 70 per cent of American schools, courts, and local governments adopted the new time system. After a year, about 85 per cent of cities with a population over 10,000 were using it. Most pockets of resistance steadily converted to standard time and the relevant time zone.

An exception was Detroit, which kept local time. The view among much of the city’s population was that the sun, and hence God, not man, should decide the time. Engineer and future car manufacturer Henry Ford favored standard time and designed a watch with two dials, to show both standard time and Detroit time. Finally, in 1900, city councilors decided to put clocks back 28 minutes to US Central Standard Time, but many people refused to change and after much quarrelling the city went back to local time. Someone sent a facetious offer to put a sundial at the front of City Hall and council scornfully forwarded it to the Committee on Sewers. Lively debate continued and in 1905 the city voted to adopt Central Standard Time again. But lobbying kept going for years by the More Daylight Club, motor car enthusiasts, and baseball fans. The city moved to Eastern time in 1915.

Although nearly all the United States, including government, adopted the standard time and time zones introduced by the railways in 1883, it was many years before federal legislation was put in place. This finally came in the form of the Standard Time Act in 1918. The legislation only came about due to the push the adopt daylight saving time, which couldn’t start until an official system of time zones and standard time was in place.