Standard Time

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In 1872 the Time-Table Convention, which would evolve into the Association of American Railroads, was founded to look for a solution. Charles F. Dowd, who was the principal of the Temple Grove Seminary for Young Ladies, in Saratoga Springs, New York, suggested a system of numerous wide time zones, and the idea began to take hold. Others began to press for a standard time as well. The distinguished Canadian railroad engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, pushed for a similar scheme as chairman of the standing committee on time of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Fleming surveyed both railroad men and scientists regarding his ideas and planned to petition Congress.

But congressmen, fearing local reaction, had resisted any such measures for years. So the railroads acted instead. In 1883 William F. Alien, managing editor of the Official Guide of the Railways , presented a specific plan to the General Time Convention, as the Time-Table Convention had been renamed in 1875. His plan had four time zones—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—centered on the seventy-fifth meridian of longitude (which passes near Philadelphia), the ninetieth (Memphis), the one hundred and fifth (Denver), and one hundred and twentieth (Fresno, California).

The railroads that were members of the General Time Convention—which is to say every major railroad in North America—agreed to Alien’s proposal in October 1883, setting November 18 of that year as the day they would begin operating on the new standard time. In many localities, the switch went smoothly. In commercial-minded New York City, the mayor ordered all city clocks to conform, everyone else simply fell into line, and that was that. In Washington, however, the Attorney General, Benjamin H. Brewster, ruled that congressional approval was needed to change government clocks from local time. The superintendent of the Naval Observatory, the nation’s official timekeeper, simply ignored him and began telegraphing the new railroad time to subscribers to its time service.

Predictably, there were snickers and resistance. Many religious people insisted on operating on “God’s time — not Vanderbilt’s,” and a preacher in Tennessee, giving a sermon on the subject, smashed his watch with a hammer in the pulpit to emphasize the point.

In adopting Alien’s system for standardizing time in North America, the railroad men had taken a certain risk. The meridians on which the new system was based assumed a prime meridian that passed through Greenwich, England, where the Royal Observatory was located, and which had legally been the basis of British standard time since 1880. But that prime meridian was acknowledged by no other country. Congress was urged to call an international convention to settle the matter and did so the following year.

Some of the delegates opposed making the Greenwich meridian official. The French, needless to say, objected strongly. Others called for running the prime meridian through the middle of the Atlantic, while many clergymen pushed for Bethlehem. But when the dust settled, an overwhelming majority of delegates voted for Greenwich.

Within a few years, the simple need to know when the trains would arrive and depart had forced nearly everyone to acquiesce to the inevitable and set their watches and clocks to the new time standard. Today, standard time is so deeply imbedded in the culture that it is nearly impossible to imagine the old world of many local times. After all, how could we set our VCRs without it?