US Rails Adopt Standard Time

Prior to the development and use of clocks, people measured time by the movements of the sun and the phases of the moon. It was not until the Middle Ages when mechanical clocks began to develop that sundials were replaced as the main method of timekeeping. Cities, however, continued to set their town clock by the sun’s position creating a disparity in time from city to city. With the integration of the railway system and the invention of the telegraph it became necessary that a more consistent and efficient method of timekeeping be created and adopted.

The first country to adopt a standardized time system throughout a region was Britain. Inconsistencies in local mean time (Mean Solar Time), time measured in relation to a longitudinal meridian, led to the introduction of a uniform time standard throughout the country by Dr. William Hyde Wollaston and the popularization of the idea by Abraham Follett Osler. The railways were the first to adopt this new standard of time, later known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which measured time in relation to the Greenwich Meridian Line. The first of these was the Great Western Railway in November 1840 followed by several others. By 1855 the majority of public clocks were running on GMT, and on August 2, 1880, with the passing of the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, all systems were mandated to adopt the system.

The first U.S. man to push for a time standard was William Lambert who proposed to Congress the need for time meridians as early as 1809. This proposal was rejected, as well as that of Charles Dowd in 1870. In 1872, Dowd revised his proposal which was later adopted in 1883 by the railway system. In 1875, astronomer and meteorologist Cleveland Abbe proposed to the American Meteorological Society (AMS) the idea of a uniform standard line. This led to the establishment of the Committee on Standard Time with Abbe as chairman. In 1879, the committee released a document, Report on Standard Time, while concurrently Canadian civil and railway engineer, Sandford Fleming, proposed the initial idea for the adoption of the present-day world-wide system of time zones, and standard time and hourly variations within said time zones.

In the United States and Canada, before the integration of the railways, cities and towns operated on a local time system rather than a standardized one. With the development of the railway system, however, trains travelling between towns found it difficult to maintain effective and efficient operations due to the differences in timekeeping between towns. In 1881, the General Time Convention (GTC), a subsection of the railroad industry involved in time schedules, accepted the proposal for standardizing time and adopted a standardized time system. At noon on November 18, 1883 North American railroads switched over to Standard Railway Time (SRT), a new standard time system which utilized standardized time zones to run safer and more effective rail operations. The following year, the 1884 International Meridian Conference was held in Washington to set up a proposal for international implementation; they aimed to establish a common initial meridian and to create a global time standard.

Based on geographical markers, economic and population dynamics, and the location of major cities, the Standard Railway Time system led cities in the U.S. to better standardize their rail systems by creating four new time zones: Pacific Standard Time, Mountain Standard Time, Central Standard Time, and Eastern Standard Time. Each of these new time zones were one hour wide, which allowed for a more simplified system of scheduling. This one hour scale of measurement was based on the ratio of fifteen degrees of longitude to one solar hour difference. As of 1893, Universal Time (UT) and international time zones were established in reference to twenty-four worldwide meridians, each fifteen degrees apart with the Prime Meridian passing through Greenwich.

Initially resistant to the adoption of this new time standard, the American public continued to use their local time standard, in some cases showing both local time and railway time. Although the railroads had no legal authority to govern time, towns and citizens across the nation, because of the practical advantages in communication and travel, eventually synchronized their clocks to the four new time zones. With the passing of the Standard Time Act on March 19, 1918, the time standard became law. The standard time zones set up by the railroads were adopted, and any changes to them were delegated to the Interstate Commerce Commission and later to the Department of Transportation in 1966.

Since the passing of the law, the time zones have been altered, but the general idea itself has stayed the same. Currently the United States operates on nine standard time zones including Atlantic Standard Time (AST), Eastern Standard Time (EST), Central Standard Time (CST), Mountain Standard Time (MST), Pacific Standard Time (PST), Alaskan Standard Time (AKST), Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time (HST), Samoa standard time (UTC-11) and Chamorro Standard Time (UTC+10).