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On This Day: American Time Zones Established by Railways

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 15, 2023

On Nov. 18, 1883, railways in the United States and Canada adopted Standard Railway Time, creating four standardized time zones in the U.S. and five in Canada.

Railway Time and the Creation of Time Zones

For most of human history, time was kept using the position of the sun, with noon occurring when the sun was at its highest peak. Most towns and cities kept their own times, usually based on sundials.

A precise method of measuring time was not needed in agricultural societies, but with the rise of industrialization in the early 19th century, there was increased use of mechanized clocks and watches. Still, time differed from town to town, creating problems as forms of communication (the telegraph) and travel (trains) became faster.

“The telegraph dramatized the lack of coordination in time standards and simultaneously ushered in a new market for time services,” explains Wharton professor Matthew W. White. “In the 1850s, observatories began to use the telegraph to determine precise meridians and distances, a process involving the exchange of exact local (sun) time from two distant locations.”

Railroads needed standardized times to keep an accurate schedule. The Great Western Railway in Britain was the first to use a standardized time, ordering in November 1840 that all its stations use London time. Many other railways followed. In November 1852, the Greenwich Observatory began sending out daily telegraphs to railways to assist in standardizing time.

The first standard time in America was introduced by railways in New England following an August 1853 fatal head-on accident in Rhode Island that occurred because the conductors were using two different times.

Over the next several decades, U.S. railways adopted their own standardized times, allowing them to maintain an accurate schedule. However, there were more than 50 railway times and hundreds of local times. Stations displayed multiple clocks showing the local time and the times for the various railroads, creating confusion for passengers.

In 1880, the British government ordered that Greenwich Mean Time become the standard time to be used throughout the country. The following year, U.S. railroads appointed William F. Allen to create a plan for standardized times in the U.S.

Sources in this Story

  • Smithsonian Institution: National Museum of American History: “On Time” Opens
  • University of Pennsylvania: The Wharton School: The Economics of Time Zones (PDF)
  • (Carnforth Station and Visitor Centre): Railway Time
  • Library of Congress: Today in History: November 18: Time!
  • U.S. Naval Observatory: U.S. Time Zones
  • The International Meridian Conference
  • A Brief History of Time Zones

Allen’s proposal was based on one developed in 1869 by Charles F. Dowd, a school principal from Saratoga, N.Y., that called for four U.S. time zones, each measuring 15 degrees of longitude. Allen tweaked the map to keep existing train lines within the same time zone so that railways would not have to significantly alter their schedules. Therefore, the straight longitudinal divides proposed by Dowd were shaped to include certain cities within certain time zones.

Allen’s proposal created the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones, plus the Intercolonial time zone in Atlantic Canada. It was agreed upon by the railways in October 1883 that they would adopt Allen’s standard time, which became known as Standard Railway Time, on Nov. 18, 1883. Many local governments agreed to adopt Standard Railway Time, though others refused.

At noon on Nov. 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory adjusted its signals to reflect the new time zones. Crowds gathered near town clocks across the country to watch the clocks be changed. In many places where the time was moved back, it became known as the “day of two noons,” while other areas “lost” minutes.

“All over the United States and Canada, people changed their clocks and watches in synchronization with their zone’s standard time,” writes the Library of Congress. “In one moment the many different standards of time that had caused conflict and confusion, were resolved into four simple standards.”

Many towns continued using their own local times for decades, but the “use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communication and travel,” according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. In March 1918, Congress passed the Standard Time Act, which officially established standard time throughout the United States.

The Standard Time Act of 1918 also established daylight saving time, which had been adopted by many European countries during World War I as a way to conserve energy. Though it was repealed a year later, it was re-established during World War II and is now used by most U.S. states.

International Time Zones

Related Events

In October 1884, delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C., for the International Meridian Conference. They agreed to establish a single world meridian, which passed through the Greenwich Observatory, and create a universal day that began at midnight Greenwich Mean Time.

The delegates also discussed the creation of a worldwide system of 24 time zones, each one hour apart. Though the measure was not passed by the conference, it was gradually adopted by most countries over the next five decades.

Read the proceedings of the International Meridian Conference at Project Gutenberg. A table showing the proposed 24 time zones is on page 142.

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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