The Development of Time Zones in the Nineteenth Century

One of my challenges in writing about the 19th century has been trying to determine how to account for time of day. In my descriptions of travel along the Oregon Trail, I mostly refer to time in generalities—midmorning, noon, sunset, and the like. I rarely give a precise hour.

My grandfather’s pocket watch

The captain of my fictional wagon train has a pocket watch, and he occasionally refers to it. But, of course, as the emigrants travel west across the continent, the captain and others with watches would have to adjust their timepieces so they continue to read 12:00 pm when the sun is directly overhead. That’s how time was kept in the 19th century—each community set its clocks so noon coincided with when the sun was at its highest point.

In my novels, I don’t depict the captain or any other character changing a watch, and as I write this post, I wonder how often the emigrants bothered. They moved an average of about fifteen miles per day, so it probably took them a few weeks of travel for the discrepancy between a watch and the sun to be noticeable.

Clock in Union Station, Kansas City (clock is 6 feet in diameter)

But as railroads developed and the pace of travel speeded up, the need for a uniform system of setting the time became more important. Railroads needed to develop a uniform schedule. Before they did, their timetables were a nightmare to maintain—each station abided by its local time, and therefore each station needed its own printed version of the railroad timetable. But many railroads published their schedules based on where their main office was.

Great Britain set a standard time across that nation in December 1847. (Note that this was two months after my fictional wagon train arrived in Oregon City.) But although the clocks were mostly standardized, England did not legally adopt Greenwich Mean Time until 1880.

Great Britain was relatively easy—one time zone sufficed. The problem was more acute across vast spaces, such as the continent of North America.

Time zones in the United States and Canada were not standardized until 1883. The major railroads of North America facilitated the process of setting those standard zones. Having a common time across a latitude of several hundred miles was not as precise as setting noon at the sun’s apex at every locality, but the time zones were a compromise that allowed wider regions to follow a common schedule.

And so the railroads established four time zones for the contiguous United States and Canada. Those time zones survive today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific—though there have been some changes at the edges over the years.

Once the zones were communicated, on November 18, 1883, telegraph lines transmitted time signals to all major cities across the nation. And from that point on, the continent has had standardized time settings, even if they were not universally or legally recognized.

A year later in October 1884, Greenwich Mean Time was set as the world’s time standard. GMT lasted until 1960, when it was superseded by the more precise (but almost identical) Coordinated Universal Time (or UTC).

Congress did not legally adopt the time zones until 1918. (The 1918 Calder Act that established legal time in the United States also established Daylight Savings Time, but the debate over Daylight Savings Time is a topic for another post.) Other nations took even longer to legally set their time zones.

I have always set my watch a few minutes fast so that I can avoid being late. Now that I rely primarily on a cell phone and other web-based clocks for the time, I don’t have that crutch. I must get myself ready with a few minutes to spare.

Are you someone who is regularly early or late? Why?

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