Standard Time Zones


Title:  Outline Map with Dials Showing Standard Railway Time, 1883

Internet Location:  Hathi Trust (University of California Original Digitized by Google)

Description:  This map of the United States and Canada shows railroad routes in one of four different colors depending on which one of four standard time zones governed them:  Eastern (75th meridian), Central (90th meridian), Mountain (105th meridian), or Pacific (120th meridian).

Source:  William F. Allen.  Report on the Adoption of Standard Time.  Proceedings of the General Time Convention and Its Successor The American Railway Association from Its Organization April 14, 1886 to October 11, 1893 Inclusive with Appendix containing proceedings of the earlier organizations known as the General Time Convention (1872 to 1885) and the Southern Railway Time Convention (1877 to 1885).  New York:  The American Railway Association, no date.  Map inserted between pages 702 and 703.

Comment:  Railroad operations in the United States after the Civil War became national in scope and required coordinated scheduling to prevent accidents and to deliver goods and passengers on time.

To meet this requirement, American railroad managers from different corporations acted together to define standard time as the solar mean time at a designated meridian (longitude) within a “standard time zone.”  The time of each zone differed by one hour from its neighboring zones.  Originally, the ends of company lines or major division points along those lines constituted the boundaries between zones.

William F. Allen, secretary of the General Time Convention and the Southern Railway Time Convention, directed the implementation of standard timekeeping.  He recorded it in these memorable words:

On November 18, 1883, the ball on the tower of the Western Union building, in New York City, dropped for the first occasion in its history on Sunday.  Standing upon the roof of that building, about a hundred feet from the tower, in the midst of a little group of interested spectators, I heard the bells of St. Paul’s Chapel strike on the old time.  Four minutes later, obedient to the electric signal from the Naval Observatory at Washington, two hundred and forty miles away, the time-ball made its rapid descent, the chimes of old Trinity rang twelve measured strokes, and local time was abandoned, probably forever. (Proceedings of the General Time Convention, page 703.)

Allen’s reference to church bell towers in New York City recalled the many centuries, dating from the European Middle Ages, when large church clocks regulated daily activity in a local area.  Now, a telegraph signal from the United States Naval Observatory, would, directly or indirectly, set clocks all over the United States based on observations and calculations made at Washington, D. C., not at the meridian of any standard time zone and without reference to the observable position of the sun at any locality.

The implementation of standard time zones may seem to have been only about time, but it also involved spatial thinking in three ways.

(1)  No single time zone had any meaning apart from the others.  All four time zones formed a continuous network through which trains could keep running by using easily known times.

(2)  No one time zone nor all of them put together had a center.  The information required to know the time at any given point did not derive from an observation at that point.  It derived from a calculation of the solar mean time for the standard time meridian related to the point.

(3)  In order to carry out the function of time zones, the boundaries of the time zones had to be contiguous and could not cross or surround each other.  These boundary characteristics may be obvious and their importance not obvious, but they were precisely the characteristics of the boundaries that divided the United States into states and gave geographical definition to statehood.  Study of the history of human cultures has documented other boundary systems, other ways of dividing terrestrial space, and other ways of distributing political power.

Railroad managers and passengers alike benefited from the ability to determine the time of any place in the United States quickly and reliably.  Through this and other means of sharing information, the national rail network would become, many people hoped, a more stable space of managed competition, not an unregulated, unreliable, and accident-prone free market.