The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


High Noons


Take a moment and think back to this past New Year’s Eve at exactly 11:59 p.m. There’s a reasonable chance that at that precise moment, you were watching Ryan Seacrest on TV, joining him and a good fraction of the rest of the country in counting down the final seconds before the New Year.

If you were watching on the East Coast, whether you were in Miami or Maine,  you could count down with Ryan in New York – the New Year arrived for you all at the same moment. It happens so smoothly as to be almost unremarkable.

For most of human history, that wasn’t the case. People judged time by the sun, and noon happened whenever the sun was directly overhead of wherever you were at the moment. For example: because Boston is further east than Washington, DC, its local noon would happen a full twenty-four minutes earlier than it did in Washington.

When it took days or even weeks to travel between cities, a 24-minute difference really didn’t matter that much. But when Americans began traveling by railroad, suddenly it mattered a lot. If you were in Worcester and needed to catch a 2 o’ clock train from Boston, for instance, did you need to be at the station at 2 o’clock Worcester time or 2 o’clock Boston time?

A lithograph showing the routes of the Illinois Central Railroad. In the 1800s, the railroad would have likely had considerable influence over time kept along its lines. Credit: Library of Congress

A lithograph showing the routes of the Illinois Central Railroad. In the 1800s, the railroad would have likely had considerable influence over time kept along its lines. Credit: Library of Congress

Trains tried to clear things up by running on the time of their origin points – i.e., if the train left from Boston, it would run on Boston time till the end of the line, no matter the local time –  but the complexities remained. In Buffalo, for example, citizens had to parse the five different clock displaying five different times to catch their trains: one for Buffalo time, and then one for each line that used the city’s station.

Harper’s magazine said of the situation, “With respect to time, the whole country was a pathless wilderness. Any traveler trying to wend his way across it was doomed to bewildering confusion.”

After a couple decades of this rather impractical system, a group of railroads decided enough was enough. In 1849, all the train lines in New England agreed to set their clocks to the same time, as determined by one especially good Boston clockmaker. It was America’s first time zone, and soon, railroads in other parts of the country followed suit.

By 1870, the nation was a patchwork of around 80 regional time zones, each one following the twists and turns of a particular railroad line. Travelers still had to reset their watches when they transferred from, say, a New England train line to one that ran to the South, but there were far fewer of these time adjustments of time than before. From the railroads’ perspective, the system worked just fine.

One group, though, still wasn’t satisfied: scientists, especially meteorologists from the brand-new National Weather Service. Here’s historian Michael O’Malley with an explanation:

“They’re starting to figure out about fronts and drawing isobars on maps that show a weather front. But for our front to be accurate, you need to know if the guy telegraphs in, it’s 2:00 o’clock here in Madison, Wisconsin and it’s rainy, what does he mean, 2:00 o’clock by the sun? Does he mean Chicago time? Does he mean railroad time? What does 2:00 o’clock mean? And so they begin to say well, we need a standard. We need a uniform zone system that will tell us exactly what time it is everywhere.”

Washington, D.C. - the meteorological work of the United States Signal Service. Interior of the "Fact Room," where the weather probabilities are made up. 1881.

Washington, D.C. – the meteorological work of the United States Signal Service. Interior of the “Fact Room,” where the weather probabilities are made up. 1881.

As scientists demanded a system of time zones with straight lines north to south, railroads got scared that the government would respond to their calls by jeopardizing the time zone boundaries the railroads had already established.

So, instead of waiting for the government to make its decision, the railroads decided to make the first move. In 1883, the heads of the country’s major railroads met in Chicago and devised a system of five time zones that would work for them all. Then, without Congress and without any sort of legislation, they figured out how to implement their new plan. Michael O’Malley again:

“They called it the ‘day of two noons.’ That’s the nickname. The railroad announced it’s a Sunday. Then at noon on this day, November 18, they’re just going to stop all operations. Wherever the train is, it’s going to stop. And it’s going to wait however long it takes to catch up with what the new Standard Time will be.”

Understandably, people were confused and not sure quite what to expect.

“ In major cities in America, people get wind of [the plan]. And they gather around the clocks wondering sort of anxiously, what’s going to happen. It’s a puzzling thing. There’s jokes that if you slip on a banana peel at the right moment, you’ll take 15 minutes to fall because time will stop.”

The event itself was pretty anticlimactic. The clocks stopped, but time kept marching on. The time shift for most cities was at most a half hour, and after the switch, people continued their business as usual.

There was some resistance, though. A few places, including Bangor, Maine, simply refused to change the clocks, and well into the 20th century, the time switch was still causing legal problems. In one case, for example, a barkeeper was arrested for keeping his bar open past the legal hour. The barkeeper’s defense? Michael O’Malley again:

“He says no, no, I’m running on sun time. And he’s legally open he says, because I’m running on solar time, not on railroad time. And the court agrees. They say that the time of day, since time immemorial, has been governed by the sun, the moon, and stars. And we aren’t going to set that aside on the mere pretext that the convenience of the railroads demands it.”

But it didn’t take too long for most Americans to see that Standard Time made life more convenient for them as well. Soon, even the resistant communities got on board, and in 1918, Congress gave Standard Time its formal legislative approval.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the time switch was the sense of national unity created by the new possibility of simultaneity.

“Before Standard Time, the time of day was what the local Sun was doing and was noon in your valley. Or you know, on the other side of the mountain, it was not quite noon yet. But Standard Time, if everybody adopted it, it put people in new forms of relationship to each other.”

And so it was that a change that the railroads had originally framed in terms of large-scale logistics came to have real meaning in Americans’ personal lives. Standard Time transformed the way people interacted with each other and the very definition of community – proving that time really is of the essence.

 This story is part of our show on the (brief) history of time. You can listen to the whole episode here – or read our story on the history of sleep.


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