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They Didn’t Know What Time It Was
On November 18, 1883, the nation finally settled on the method of synchronizing all clocks that we call standard time. Why did it take so long to figure that one out?
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
“Begorra, the thing has stopped; phwahts the matter wid it, anyhow? I don’t see no time changing, do you, Mike?”
“Divil a change at all, at all, can I see. ”
“Lave us go on, the hull thing’s a sell.”
“Howld your whist, will you.”
“She’s movin agin. Watch it now.”
IN A MASSACHUSETTS courtroom a few days later, a magistrate opposed to the time change found a man named Clapp in default to one Jenkins for appearing at 10:01 A.M. by the old time, which was 9:45 by the new time. When Clapp, who was to appear between 9:00 and 10:00, appealed to Superior Court, Jenkins’s attorney argued that the new time was not valid because the legislature had not approved it. But the presiding judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., ruled that Clapp had a right to be governed by the new standard.
In synchronizing time in all the zones with that of Greenwich, the railroad managers ran a certain risk, for the Prime Meridian Conference, held in Washington in the fall of 1884, might have chosen some other base for global time. The French delegates, of course, strongly opposed Greenwich, arguing instead for a meridian that passed through no major land mass—somewhere, perhaps, in the Pacific Ocean. Their logic impressed a few Americans. One wrote to an editor urging a mid-Atlantic location, and a group of Washington clergymen plumped for the line passing through Bethlehem. But the conference concluded, by an overwhelming vote, to locate the prime meridian at Greenwich, and America’s railroaders could breathe more easily.
Year by year thereafter, resistance to the railroad standard time gradually lessened, until most of the population took it for granted and called it simply standard time. But now and then the issue flared up in unexpected places. In Bath, Maine, the 1887 town meeting voted 605 to 157 to return to local time, in defiance of the state legislature. But the town officers overruled the voters and directed the mayor to keep the public clocks, at least, on standard time. He proved a veritable Solomon: the town bell would be rung, he ordered, twenty minutes early—at 6:40 and 11:40 each morning and at 12:40 and 5:40 in the afternoon, which were 7:00, noon, 1:00, and 6:00 by local time.
A year later in Georgia, Augusta rejected standard time. As reported in a local newspaper, “Without ceremony of any kind the hands of the city clock were pushed forward 32 minutes at noon, and Augusta was again placed abreast of the sun.… She has placed herself back alongside of old Sol’s chariot now, and it is confidently believed that before many more heats have been run she will be throwing dust in his face.”
Early in 1889 the Board of Education in Bellaire, Ohio, moved in the opposite direction, replacing local time with Eastern standard. Having responsibility for the municipal clock, the board could do so, and it took the opponents almost a year to nullify the monstrous action—by a city council edict making it “a misdemeanor for anyone to expose a timepiece in public with the hands marking any other than local time.” When the board ignored the ordinance, all its members were arrested.
Such results were possible only when the government had not seen fit to make standard time official. A bill with that intention was submitted in 1889, but its sponsor, named Flowers, found Congress an arid field of indifference.
Meanwhile, travelers had to be reminded how the railroad time operated and continued to rely on explanations in pocket diaries. The first Baedeker guide to the United States, issued in 1893, devoted to the time zones a paragraph that ended on a querulous note: “in some cases … the results are confusing.” They were for William Cooper of Elmira, New York, who recalled at ninety-seven his first trip by train, to Chicago, to attend the Columbian Exposition:
“I was early to bed with eagerness. Sleepily in the green curtained booth I got to thinking (11 years old) that the geography showed an hour’s change. I kept waking and peeking to see what the country west of Buffalo looked like and when a big old open faced silver watch came to 6, I dressed fast and expected to see Chicago any minute. It was bright dawn before I discovered that we were in the new time zone and that my arithmetic was reversed and when I got up and dressed at my old 6, it was not 7 but 5 o’clock!”
Even more confusing for unwary travelers were the occasional changes in time-zone boundaries. In 1908, after the Eastern zone was extended westward, very close to Detroit, the voters of that city were given a chance to decide on the “kind of time they prefer.” A vociferous element argued for rejection of both Eastern and Central standards and a return to local sun time. These zealots insisted that any of their neighbors who were, as the Times put it, “violently opposed to the domination of the sun” might as well move to Pittsburgh.