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They Didn’t Know What Time It Was

July 2024
11min read

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?

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. ”

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:

“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.

The Detroit incident was one of the last, for in 1908 Parliament considered a bill advancing all British clocks an hour during the summer months, and although it eventually was defeated, it gave an unexpected new direction to the talk about time. The Briton who first proposed the idea, William Willett, tried to drum up American support by writing to every member of Congress, few of whom were much interested. But broad press coverage stimulated general debate on the pros and cons of Willett’s summer time, which was quickly dubbed daylight saving.

President Taft, an early convert, publicly urged communities to adopt daylight saving by ordinance, and his hometown of Cincinnati promptly did so. Strong opposition developed elsewhere, however, notably on the editorial pages of The New York Times , where it was ridiculed week after week as “an act of madness. ” We “will have to hear a lot of better arguments than have yet been advanced,” an editorial asserted, “before we join enthusiastically in the naive game of playing that 7 o’clock is 8 or 9.”

The N.Y. Times called daylight savings a “naive game.”

The debate, which continued for almost a decade, was given fresh impetus by America’s entry into the European war in 1917. Germany and Great Britain had adopted summertime daylight saving in 1916 as a means of conserving fuel, and this wartime purpose converted even The New fork Times . The editor warned, however, that it would be effective only if the entire nation was required to advance its clocks uniformly. “And unanimous consent is hard to get, out of the Senate as well as in it.”

The warning was justified; short of congressional fiat, there could be no hope of nationwide compliance. On Nantucket Island a town meeting voted down a daylight-saving ordinance, and Harvard College students rejected the idea by a vote of 689 to 393. But with the strong endorsement of President Wilson, Congress passed a Daylight Saving Act in 1918 and Wilson affixed his signature on March 20—less than two weeks before clocks were to be advanced. Opponents of daylight saving, and rural diehards who clung to “God’s Time,” had lost their fight against “Wilson’s Time.”

In New York City people thronged Madison Square, while at the nearby Aldine Club, Marcus M. Marks, Manhattan’s borough president and the nation’s most energetic campaigner for daylight saving, watched the show outside. At 2:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 31, Marks pushed a button, and the hour hand on the Metropolitan Tower clock moved ahead.

The daylight saving thus welcomed was annulled the very next year, when, with the war ended, conserving fuel no longer seemed essential; nearly half a century would pass before its permanent national adoption in 1966. But the 1918 act contained a clause that at last made standard time official. The members of Congress, in their deliberations, had realized that if all the nation’s clocks were to be advanced for part of the year, the base for the advance had to be uniform, and that called for compliance with standard time, compulsory nationwide.

Even today, sixty-five years after Congress finally imposed standard time on the entire nation, not everybody is altogether happy about daylight saving or about the time-zone boundaries. But everyone can appreciate the irony of standard time becoming official only by riding in tardily on the coattails of daylight saving.

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