At noon on Nov. 18, 1883, Americans experienced for the first time something called Standard Railway Time. It was the brainchild of a group of railroad executives who had met in Chicago the month before. In the interests of streamlining and standardizing their booming businesses, they had divided the nation into four time zones based on the 75th, 90th, 105th and 120th meridians.
Their decision applied solely to railroad schedules, the only thing over which they had authority. But it would soon change the life of every American.
That same day, the U.S. Naval Observatory adapted its telegraphic signals to the new arrangement, and before long state after state began adopting the time zones. In one stroke, a handful of businessmen had persuaded most Americans to change the way they told time. It was a striking and early example of the ability of corporations to wield influence over the most basic elements of public life.
Americans had previously used the position of the sun to set clocks and watches, which meant that the time varied from one locale to another. For most people, this was fine even when traveling because they rarely had to meet a close schedule.
Trains, however, were the first form of transportation that tried to operate on fixed schedules. Passengers traveling east or west counted on connecting trains to complete their journey, but a railroad's detailed timetable was a hash of local times impossible to coordinate with other railroads. When it was noon in Chicago, for example, it was 11:27 in Omaha, Nebraska; 11:50 in St. Louis; 12:09 in Louisville, Kentucky; and 12:31 in Pittsburgh. The Union Pacific Railroad alone had to contend with six different local times on its system. The state of Illinois was reputed to have 27 local times and Wisconsin 38.
Big business was just emerging in the U.S. in the 1880s, and the railroads were by far the largest corporations around. Their presence had transformed American life, and some people had already come to resent their power and influence at a time when Washington scarcely intruded into their lives. Not everyone bought into the new order; one editor sniffed that he preferred setting his clock to "God's time -- not Vanderbilt's."
Yet as the railroads grew, reliable scheduling became ever more crucial. And coordinated time zones made perfect sense in an era when the nation's population was expanding rapidly and its economy was becoming more integrated. By the time Congress gave its formal approval to the new time zones on March 19, 1918, by passing the Standard Time Act, also known as the Calder Act, the habit of adhering to standard time had long since been ingrained.
That a single industry, even a large one, could impose so fundamental a change in the habits of the American people remains a remarkable achievement. The railroads were a conservative, even stodgy, industry. But their leaders were sometimes capable of thinking big.
(Maury Klein is professor of history emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 16 books on American history. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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