They Didn’t Know What Time It Was


THROUGHOUT MOST of the last century, very few Americans could agree on the time of day. Every town kept its own time. A pocket diary for the year 1873 contains two tables, one showing the difference in time between Boston and other cities, the second giving the time in other cities when it was noon in New York. With a little calculating, a Boston salesman bound for St. Louis could learn from the first table that if he set his watch back one hour, sixteen minutes, and forty-six seconds, it would agree with the timepieces of his prospective customers. And a New Yorker bound for Bangor, Maine, would be late for appointments if he forgot to set his watch ahead by twenty-one minutes.

There were thirty-eight different times in Wisconsin; there were six in Pittsburgh.

Great Britain had taken care of a similar situation by standardizing its time in 1848, and most of Western Europe had followed suit. But Americans could not seem to agree on a solution to the absurd problem.

For most of human history it hadn’t been a problem at all. Through the centuries local time was based on noon as the moment when the sun was observed to be, at any given place on earth, directly overhead. Astronomers had long known that, thanks to the Earth’s tilted axis, that moment differed by as much as half an hour during the course of the year. Reliance on sundials, accordingly, produced mornings and afternoons of varying length, but that mattered little until the thirteenth century, when clocks were introduced in Europe. Their unvarying mechanism forced the invention of mean solar time, a mathematical averaging of the sun’s annual vagaries. Welcome advance though this was, it did nothing to reduce the confusion caused by the variety of local times from east to west. Only the arbitrary imposition of a uniform time for an entire nation could solve the confusion.

Geography does much to explain the delay in the United States. In relatively small Western European nations the shift from local to national time was nowhere as much as half an hour. But the United States, spanning a continent, extended sixty degrees, representing four hours of the sun’s daily advance. A single uniform time for so great a distance would mean that when it was noon in Boston or Philadelphia, the sun over San Francisco would be three hours short of reaching its zenith. Alternately, a base meridian located in the middle of the continent would give the East Coast its midday an hour and a half late.

Before 1800 few Americans had any need or desire to travel far from their farm or village homes, but the decades preceding the Civil War industrialization increased mobility and with it dissatisfaction with the multiplicity of local times. By the 187Os American business was finding this multiplicity more and more troublesome.


New England, smallest of the nation’s regions and the most heavily industrialized, pioneered in the reduction of local times. By the early 187Os the urban areas near the Atlantic Ocean, agreed to accept Boston time, as provided by astronomers at Harvard, while the western half of the region followed Yale in adopting New York time. In most parts of the country, however, the greater distances between cities discouraged such cooperation.

Morse’s telegraph, considerably improved since its first demonstration in 1844, enabled observatories to transmit electric time signals to any city willing to pay for the service. The signal was usually sent on the stroke of noon where the observatory was located, and the recipient was almost always a prominent jeweler. The clock in his shop window gave passersby a chance to check their watches, and he usually had the further responsibility of keeping the municipal clocks synchronized. In a few Eastern cities time balls dropping at noon upon direct signal from observatories offered widely visible means for correcting individual timepieces. As in England, where every harbor of any importance had a time ball, the original purpose was to aid navigation. The device has long been superseded, of course, but one time ball does survive, watched at midnight instead of at noon by huge crowds in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There were also time-guns, activated by the same telegraphed signals, for the benefit of fogbound mariners.

AS EARLY AS 1856 the Dudley Observatory in Albany offered to telegraph the exact time to any two clocks in New York that the city might designate. The only cost would be the original one, about seven thousand dollars, for stringing the necessary wires down the Hudson River valley. The New fork Times applauded the offer as very liberal, adding that “the utility of a standard of time is too obvious to require argument.” But the Common Council declined the offer, perhaps aware that Professor Bull of New York University had a proposal of his own. The next winter, in any event, the mayor ordered the bell ringers in all the city’s fire stations to sound nine o’clock each evening upon telegraphed signal from Bull at a private observatory on Eleventh Street. “Of course,” the Times commented, “for a night or two people will suppose the whole city is on fire at 9 o’clock. But with the hydrants frozen, the mistaken alarm will do no harm. ”