History: The Move Toward Standardized Timekeeping

Mar 8, 2017

There are eleven time zones in Russia. That sounds crazy, but America used to be much worse. Every city had its own time zone until we synchronized our clocks.  Our local history series, sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society, looks at how it changed.

Imagine living in America when there was no single standard for timekeeping. It could be 10 a.m. here in Springfield, but 11:15 in St. Louis, and 10:08 in Chicago. Each town based its timekeeping on the sun. When it was highest in the sky; that was noon, according to the National Museum of American History.

As you can imagine, traveling was a logistical nightmare. Train schedules were based on their city of departure… or, even worse, intermediate towns on their line.

Springfield’s November 16, 1883 Illinois State Journal explained.

“Boston time (was) adopted for roads running from Boston, (and)New York time for roads running from New York…At certain important stations en route, it has been the custom to change the (timekeeping) standard, as at Buffalo, Pittsburg, Toledo, Cincinnati, etc.“

Even Einstein would have had trouble figuring out a cross-country trip.

That’s what it was like in America before November 18, 1883. On that day, our country shifted to standardized, or “standard” time. We went from having hundreds of time zones to less than a handful.

Astronomers and geophysicists had been calling for a standard time for a while, but it took the railroads to get it done. They established four zones: eastern standard time, central daylight time, mountain standard time, and Pacific daylight time, according to the Library of Congress. Each time zone was only one hour different from its adjacent zone.

In an article titled, “Now Wind the clock and Take True Time,” the November 13, 1883 Journal stated:

“The proposed change of time on the railroads…is a matter of more importance than the public is generally aware of.” 

Not all Americans were happy about the change, according to the National Museum of American History.

“To them, it represented a loss of local autonomy or a disregard for the authority of God and nature.”

Perhaps the Journal was trying to get all Springfieldians on board with the new timekeeping standard. Its article on the 13th continued…

“Most of the leading business places in the city, the banks especially, are already preparing to adopt the new standard, and the clock in front of Klaholt’s jewelry store (on the south side of the downtown square) will be set to it on next Monday. The clocks in the railroad offices will be set to the new standard at noon Sunday.”

The Journal’s editors kept advocating for the change in their Nov. 16 issue.

“Standard time will secure uniformity among the railroads, and all running between the same (time zones) will be governed by the same time. This will be an important point gained…so that it will not be necessary for a traveler in starting on a journey, or in seeking to secure a connection with another road, to enter into a complicated arithmetical calculation every time he takes a train, in order to make due allowance for the difference between the standard of time employed upon the road upon which he travels, and the time as shown by his own watch. Seeing that railroad travel now enters so largely into our business and social life, the advantage of this must be evident.”

Until the switch to standard time, Springfield went by “Chicago time,” which was “8 minutes, 47 seconds, as near as may be, faster,” according to the Journal.

Once it changed, Springfield was in the central daylight time zone. Its standard was the ninetieth meridian --

"....which “passes almost directly through Bates, on the Wabash road, so that Springfield is only about 10 miles east of the line of true sun time…”

-- The November 13 Journal reported.  

Some people in the country refused to change their watches to the new standard time. Instead, they kept two watches -- one for standard time or “railway” time, and the other for the old local time.

Springfieldians must have taken to the new time fairly well. There were no complaints about it in the papers.

To the contrary, local stores used it as an inducement to sell watches.

By the way, today, America has two more time zones: Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time and Alaska Standard Time.

And a reminder: Daylight Savings Time begins this weekend.