“All over the United States and Canada, people changed their clocks and watches in synchronization with their zone’s standard time… In one moment the many different standards of time that had caused conflict and confusion, were resolved into four simple standards.”
– The Library of Congress
On November 18, 1883, at the stroke of midnight, the United States adopted Standard Time Zones throughout the country. This meant that instead of each town having its own time, the entire country would run according to four time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. And all at once the confusion and chaos of time changes across the country became a thing of the past.
Time-Keeping Chaos Across America
For the most part in man’s history, time was kept in towns according to the sundial. One had only to look up at the sun, and there was the standard time for the area you were in. Now this was fine, as long as man could travel no faster than he could on the back of a horse. And most towns did indeed keep their own time based on the sundial. But once the Telegraph was introduced, and the Railroads, and these new modes of transportation shrunk the amount of time it took to get from one place to the other scheduling became a nightmare. Railroad timetables in most of the major cities of the U.S. would be obliged to list several differing arrival and departure times for a single train each one linked to a separate time zone in a different locality.
The Effort to Standardize Time Zones
In order to keep an accurate schedule of when goods, services or passengers could be expected to arrive at a certain place at a certain time, railroads needed standardized time zones. It is a mark of the power possessed by railroads that they, and not the government brought about this fundamental change in everyday American life. In the 1870’s international efforts to bring standardized time zones into use began being made. In 1870, Charles F. Dowd proposed running U.S. railroads on four different time zones based on a meridian that ran through Washington D.C. In 1872 he amended this
to basing it on a meridian that ran through Greenwhich, England. Sandford Fleming (above), a Canadian inventor and railroad engineer proposed worldwide Standard Time at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute on February 8, 1879. In 1879 at the General Time Convention, Cleveland Abbe, an American meteorologist recommended four time zones across the contiguous U.S. based on Greenwhich Mean Time (the basic standard for world time). Eventually this was the plan which was adopted. And the date set was the 18’th of November.
On November 18, 1883…
As Dennis Cummings has colorfully recorded:
“At noon on Nov. 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory adjusted its signals to reflect the new time zones. Crowds gathered near town clocks across the country to watch the clocks be changed. In many places where the time was moved back, it became known as the ‘day of two noons,’ while other areas ‘lost’ minutes.”
There was considerable resistance to this change in certain localities, but the railroad was by this time the lifeblood of the country, and frequently the only link for many such towns with the rest of the world. So most Americans and Canadians fully embraced this new idea of time zones. But it was actually not until 1918 that Congress – then as now catching up with what the country was already doing – officially adopted the four tine zones, placing in the supervision of the Interstate Commerce Commission.