Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Railroad Time

Reference:  Into the Modern Age:  The Adoption of Standard Time
critical enquiry.org/wo/2012/11/30/into-the-modern-age-the-adoption-of-standard-time

When conducting research on travel by train for my current WIP, A Touch of Irish Texas, I became bogged down in train schedules, distances between cities, and the amount of time it took to travel those distances. What a mess. It was discouraging for someone not familiar with time in the 1880s and 90s and who needed to get characters on a train in Boston bound for Monahans, Texas. So, here's what I learned. 

We've had mechanical time pieces for a long time, even as far back as the ancient world, however, the  time was never exact. Accuracy wasn't of such importance back in our earlier history as l  ife wasn't based on a time schedule. In areas where cities had public clocks, they were usually based on local mean time which was determined by the position of the sun at noon, "since each degree of longitudinal movement around the globe represents a difference of roughly 4 minutes on a solar-based time system. Under solar time, if was noon in Boston, it was 11:24 in Charleston, South Carolina, 11:36 in Washington, DC, 11:48 in New York City, and so forth."

On December 11, 1847, the United Kingdom adopted a single time zone. Railways in that country switched from local mean time to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). "The UK had the advantage of covering only 8 degrees of longitude, so only one time zone was required." Communities the farthest away only needed to change their clocks one-half hour forward or backward. "By 1855, most of the country's public clocks were set to GMT."

The US had a much larger problem as it's territory stretched across 57 degrees of longitude and unlike the UK, the US lacked a well-known central city on which to base any national system of timekeeping.

Though railroads were not the prime motivating force behind adopting of a standard time, they did have problems. Timetables were based on known travel time and distance between stations which often led to accidents and delays. In the 1850s, schedules were managed with new technology—the telegraph—which allowed updates to be forwarded or notice of disabled trains.

In 1852, a writer for an industry journal recommended that New York City's time be adopted as "the first [or sole] meridian of railroad time." The concept didn't receive further discussion. "It was not until 1869, when Charles F Dowd presented a plan at a New York convention of trunk line (railway) operators, that some momentum toward adoption of a national railroad time began." He emphasized how confusing the time schedules could be for travelers. He proposed that Washington DC's local mean time be adopted to manage all national railroad travel. Each city could continue to use their local mean time for other purposes. The railroads lost interest and "felt any inconvenience and confusion to travelers wasn't their problem to solve."

Astronomers needed a universal time system for coordinating celestial observations. In 1875 Cleveland Abbe wrote of his difficulties when attempting to coordinate observations of an aurora borealis on April 7, 1874. He had recruited 100 observers in an attempt to determine the aurora's altitude about the earth. "The experiment failed because, as Abbe stated, 'the errors of the Observers' clocks and watches, and even of the standards of time used by them are generally not stated...so that the uncertainty of this vitally important matter will be found to throw obscurity upon some interesting features.'"

In 1880, Abbe corresponded with Stanford Fleming, a Canadian railway engineer who expressed the need for a universal world time. The two men called  for an international convention to discuss the issue which troubled not only the railroads but other forms of trade such as steamships and other companies.

Discussion continued, papers were written, but no real progress was made until April 1883 when William F Allen wrote an article for the General Time Convention. "He stated that "We should settle this question among ourselves, and not entrust it to the invite wisdom of the...State legislatures."

"Meetings in 1883 formalized the system of meridians, then know as Standard Railway Time, each exactly one hour apart, that formed the basis for Standard Time. By happy coincidence, the proposed eastern meridian of Allen's system coincided within 6 seconds of GMT, which was 5 hours away. This reinforced Allen's belief that Greenwich time should be adopted as a world standard."

The new system was formally implemented on November 18, 1883 and almost universally adopted with a year. "New Yorkers set their clocks back four minutes, Chicagoans stopped theirs for nine minutes. Those in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Denver did nothing since they were located at the base meridian for their time zone."

"In 1918, the US formally adopted Standard Time and abolished all local timekeeping."

Thank you for stopping by Sweethearts of the West. Please leave a comment and I promise to respond. Next month I'm blogging about "Buying a Watch in 1880."

Happy Reading and Writing!



  1. This was interesting, Linda. I didn't know how the U.S. adopted GMT. I knew that later, railroads insisted conductors have a pocketwatch that kept perfect time. Nice to know things we take for granted.

    1. Me either, Caroline, and I didn't realize the railroad led the way. A watch keeping perfect time would be valuable. We have few today that do.

  2. Nice article. My husband collects watches, antique watches. I bought him a genuine railroad watch one year for our anniversary. It had to keep accurate time in 6 positions and had to be certified often. Most railway men had at least two watches so that one could be checked and certified as accurate while using the other.

    My father has his late grandfather's railroad watch. His grandfather was killed while working on the Western Railroad in Westernport, MD in May 1921. He was a brakeman during the week and an engineer on the weekends. His brake stick broke, throwing him onto the tracks where he was decapitated. My grandmother was 6½ and her sister was 5.

    1. Thanks Heare2Watts. Your husband's collection sounds like a nice one to have. I didn't know railway men had to have two watches. Railroad work can be so dangerous. How terrible for your grandmother and her sister. Unfortunately, those accidents still happen today.

  3. My grandfather and uncle also had railroad jobs and my husband's grandfather engineered devices for the railroad. Railroad trips have been an adventure enjoyed over their lifetimes. We also collect clocks so this was a great read for us.
    The few minutes difference wouldn't bother me but I struggle daily with time zones across countries.

    1. Laura, one of these days I'm going to take a vacation on Amtrak. Have never been on a train that I can remember. Glad you found the article of interest. I'm with you, the time zones are a pain! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Yikes, I'm late! This was an interesting piece. I didn't know the railroad was responsible for standard time. My dad worked as time keeper on the railroad until he became a meteorologist. The railroad was such a huge part of American history.
    I have never ridden on a train, but it seems like it would be so much fun.
    I enjoyed reading your post, Linda. Sorry I was late getting here.


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