Why We Have Time Zones

An 1883 Innovation By the Railroads Became Part of Ordinary Life

Lithograph of The Express Train by Currier and Ives
The Express Train by Currier and Ives. Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

Time zones, a novel concept in the 1800s, were created by railroad officials who convened meetings in 1883 to deal with a major headache. It was becoming impossible to know what time it was.

The underlying cause of confusion was simply that the United States had no time standard. Each town or city would keep its own solar time, setting clocks so noon was when the sun was directly overhead.

That made perfect sense for anyone who never left town.

But it became complicated for travelers. Noon in Boston would be a few minutes before noon in New York City. And Philadelphians experienced noon a few minutes after New Yorkers did. And on and on, across the nation.

For railroads, which needed reliable timetables, this created a huge problem. "Fifty-six standards of time are now employed by the various railroads of the country in preparing their schedules of running times," reported the front page of the New York Times on April 19, 1883.

Something had to be done, and by the end of 1883 the United States, for the most part, was operating on four time zones. Within a few years the entire world followed that example.

So it's fair to say the American railroads changed the way the entire planet told time.

The Decision to Standardize Time

The expansion of the railroads in the years following the Civil War only made the confusion over all the local time zones seem worse.

Finally, in the spring of 1883, the leaders of the nation's railroads sent representatives to a meeting of what was called the General Railroad Time Convention.

On April 11, 1883, in St. Louis, Missouri, railroad officials agreed to create five time zones in North America: Provincial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.

The concept of standard time zones had actually been suggested by several professors going back to the early 1870s. At first it was suggested that there be two time zones, set to when noon occurred in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. But that would create potential problems for people living in the West, so the idea eventually evolved into four "time belts" set to straddle the 75th, 90th, 105th, and 115th meridians.

On October 11, 1883, the General Railroad Time Convention met again in Chicago. And it was formally decided that the new standard of time would take effect a little more than a month later, on Sunday, November 18, 1883.

As the date for the big change approached, newspapers published numerous articles explaining how the process would work.

The shift only amounted to a few minutes for many people. In New York City, for instance, the clocks would be turned back four minutes. Going forward, noon in New York would occur at the same moment as noon in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities in the East.

In many towns and cities jewelers used the event to drum up business by offering to set watches to the new time standard. And though the new time standard was not sanctioned by the federal government, the Naval Observatory in Washington offered to send, by telegraph, a new time signal so people could synchronize their watches.

Resistance to Standard Time

It seems most people had no objection to the new time standard, and it was widely accepted as a sign of progress. Travelers on the railroads, in particular, appreciated it. An article in the New York Times on November 16, 1883, noted, "The passenger from Portland, Me., to Charleston, S.C., or from Chicago to New Orleans, can make the entire run without changing his watch."

As the time change was instituted by the railroads, and voluntarily accepted by many towns and cities, some incidents of confusion appeared in newspapers. A report in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 21, 1883 described an incident where a debtor had been ordered to report to a Boston courtroom at 9:00 on the previous morning. The newspaper story concluded:

"According to custom, the poor debtor is allowed one hour's grace. He appeared before the commissioner at 9:48 o'clock, standard time, but the commissioner ruled that it was after ten o'clock and defaulted him. The case will probably be brought before the Supreme Court."

Incidents like that demonstrated the need for everyone to adopt to the new standard time. However, in some places there was lingering resistance. An item in the New York Times the following summer, on June 28, 1884, detailed how the city of Louisville, Kentucky, had given up on standard time. Louisville set all its clocks ahead 18 minutes to return to solar time.

The problem in Louisville was that while the banks adopted to the time standard of the railroad, other businesses did not. So there was persistent confusion about when business hours actually ended each day.

Of course, throughout the 1880s most businesses saw the value of moving permanently to standard time. By the 1890s standard time and time zones were accepted as ordinary.

Time Zones Went Worldwide

Britain and France had each adopted national time standards decades earlier, but as they were smaller countries, there was no need for more than one time zone. The successful adoption of standard time in the United States in 1883 set an example for how time zones could spread across the globe.

The following year a time convention in Paris began the work of designating time zones worldwide. Eventually the time zones around the globe we know today came into use.

The United States government made the time zones official by passing the Standard Time Act in 1918. Today most people simply take time zones for granted, and have no idea that time zones were actually a solution devised by the railroads.

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McNamara, Robert. "Why We Have Time Zones." ThoughtCo, Nov. 16, 2016, thoughtco.com/why-we-have-time-zones-1773953. McNamara, Robert. (2016, November 16). Why We Have Time Zones. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-we-have-time-zones-1773953 McNamara, Robert. "Why We Have Time Zones." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-we-have-time-zones-1773953 (accessed November 22, 2017).