They Didn’t Know What Time It Was


In a few years the Naval Observatory in Washington became the chief source of time signals, while Western Union was gaining a monopoly on their transmission. In 1877 the company installed a time ball atop its tall new building in New York. Made of copper, perforated to minimize air resistance, the threeand-a-half-foot globe poised 250 feet above street level was clearly visible throughout the harbor and business district of lower Manhattan. A Times editor remarked approvingly, “In these days of railroads and railroad-like ways of doing business, a man whose time is money to him must attend not only to his hours and minutes, but even to his seconds.”

Unfortunately this second-conscious man would have been dissatisfied with the Western Union time ball; it did not always fall at exactly the right moment. The cause perhaps lay with the mechanism that had to adjust the difference in mean solar time between New York and Washington—12 minutes, 10.47 seconds. Whatever the reasons, people were calling for a system that would eliminate time differentials between major cities.

In 1882 the American Meteorological Society offered a “Proposed Schedule for Standards of Time.” The author leaned heavily on Harvard’s eminent mathematician, Benjamin Peirce, who had suggested dividing North America into time zones, each of fifteen degrees of longitude and so bounded that the differential between local sun time and the uniform zone time would nowhere be greater than thirty minutes.

Newspapers publicized the idea; readers immediately got worried. Should the entire East Coast, they asked, be forced to accept the time of some one city—Washington, perhaps? Or New York? Or even Pittsburgh, as some of its local boosters insisted? People bridled particularly at Peirce’s proposal to synchronize the time in all the zones with that of the Royal Naval Observatory at Greenwich, England; not even in Europe was Greenwich longitude acknowledged as the zero meridian.

If the scientific community and the newspapers hoped to prod Congress into action, they were disappointed. It would have been political suicide to ignore the strong grass-roots opposition to giving up local time, which many insisted on calling “God’s Time.” Congress did, however, adopt a resolution in 1882 calling for an international conference to choose a prime meridian for the entire world. Before this could be organized, however, the nation’s railroads, of all businesses the most adversely affected by the multiplicity of local times, decided they could wait no longer and took action of their own.

Ten years earlier, at their annual convention, railroad managers had listened politely to Charles F. Dowd, principal of a seminary for young ladies in Saratoga Springs, New York, as he outlined a plan for time zones that anticipated Peirce’s. They listened to Dowd again in 1873, with greater interest, but the depression that year persuaded them to shelve the idea. Dowd carried his campaign to executives of other kinds of business and won considerable support. But no other enterprise had as much at stake as the railroads—or such potential influence.

Once prosperity returned, the railroad men asked one of their own, William F. Alien, to study the matter and prepare a report. As editor of the mighty Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines and as secretary of the National Railway Time Convention, Alien could speak the language of the railroad establishment as Dowd, an outsider, could not. The 1883 convention accepted his report with enthusiasm.

Many clung to local time —which they called “God’ Time.“

Announced in October 1883, the railroad plan was to take effect a month later. Public response was varied. Boston, after a town meeting dominated by university scientists, agreed to accept the railroads’ Eastern time. In New York there was not even a public meeting; the mayor simply ordered all city clocks to conform, and the private sector promptly fell into line. But in Chicago things were different. The Illinois Central Railroad chose to defer the change to Central standard until the city fathers accepted it, and that, for the moment, was out of the question. A number of local working people feared that the change, of about nine minutes, might somehow result in longer working hours. But the Chicago Board of Trade and several prominent jewelers did convert, which only compounded the confusion. Meanwhile, in Washington, the superintendent of the Naval Observatory flouted the attorney general’s firm opinion that no change was permissible without formal congressional approval and announced his intention to telegraph the new railroad time to all government time balls and time guns. For some years thereafter, government clocks in the District of Columbia remained on the old local time while all others showed the railroads’ Eastern standard time.

For all its eventual significance for the nation’s way of life, the day of the actual change—November 18, 1883, a Sunday—passed with little incident. In communities rejecting the railroad plan, only clocks in railroad stations were set ahead or back. Elsewhere the curious gathered in front of jewelers’ shops and then moved on, disappointed that the controversial change involved nothing more than stopping a clock for a few minutes. In New York a reporter picked up this dialogue: