Today, November 18, 1883: Times Zones Created by Railroads

Every time you look at your watch, phone or anything that tells you what time it is, do you have any idea where that time actually came from? What do you think it would be like if every city, town or community had their own time?

Believe it or not, prior to 1883, there was no standard time and yes, every city, town and community could and did keep their own time. Many cities and towns tried to conform their times with each other, but in reality there was no standard or rule that governed what time it was anywhere. To help try to keep a somewhat standard time, many towns, cities, etc., built large and tall clock towers so that everyone could see the clock. Many of these clocks were often set to the times that were in conjunction with the rising and setting of the sun during any particular season of the year. That still didn’t standardize times and many cities, towns and locations continued to set their own times, largely based on the sun.

In 1764, John Harrison, a British horologist (study of time and clocks) discovered that one could determine the location of a ship at sea more accurately by using clocks. His discovery eventually led to the establishment of longitudes which are still in use today.

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In 1809, William Lambert, an amateur astronomer, presented case to Congress for the establishment of standard time meridians, but Congress took no action on his request.

In the 1800’s, the lack of standardized times became a huge problem for railroads as they stretched out across the nations. Many railroad stations used the time of their local city which may or may not have been in conjunction with the times of other railroad stations along the same rail line. This made it difficult to schedule train arrivals and departures across large distances.

In 1863, Charles Dowd began teaching the need for time zones to his students. He was the principal at the Temple Grove Ladies Seminary in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In 1869, Dowd presented his case for time zones to a group of railroad executives.

In 1870, Dowd published a pamphlet titled ‘A System of National Time for Railroads.’

In 1872, Dowd proposed establishing time zones based upon Greenwich, England, and then at the 75th meridian west of Greenwich, along with the 90º, 105 º, and 120 º all west of Greenwich.

On this day, November 18, 1883, railroad executives in the United States and Canada adopted Dowd’s proposal to establish time zones across the continent for the purpose of standardizing railroad schedules and ticketing.

However, many cities continued to keep their own times for a number of years afterwards. Gradually, more and more locations began to synchronize their times with those of the railroad time zones.

On March 10, 1918, the Standard Time Act, passed by the US Congress, became law and was enacted. This law established the standard time zones across the United States in conjunction with that used by the railroads. Per the Standard Time Act, the Interstate Commerce Commission was given authority to maintain the set time zones and to make any changes if warranted.

Today, the Department of Transportation maintains the time zones in the US. Since their official establishment, there have been numerous changes and alterations have been made to the original time zones. Those changes have been made to improve the accuracy of time across the entire nation.


Sources for the above includes: Why Do We Have Time Zones?; How, When, and Why Were Time Zones Created?; History of Time Zones; Railroads Create the First Time Zones; Daylight Savings Time; History of Timezones; The History of Time Zones

Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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