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Railroads Lead the Way to Standard Time in the United States

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Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on November 18, 1883. Prior to that, time of day was a local matter, and most cities and towns used some form of local solar time, maintained by a well known clock (on a church steeple, for example, or in a jeweler's window). This meant we had 50 different times zones as you went from state to state. The new standard time system was not immediately embraced by all, however. (The train at right is a Union locomotive used during the American Civil War, photo ca. 1861-1865.)
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Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on November 18, 1883. Prior to that, time of day was a local matter, and most cities and towns used some form of local solar time, maintained by a well known clock (on a church steeple, for example, or in a jeweler's window). This meant we had 50 different times zones as you went from state to state. The new standard time system was not immediately embraced by all, however. (The train at right is a Union locomotive used during the American Civil War, photo ca. 1861-1865.)



[caption id="attachment_3149" align="alignnone" width="150" caption="Older Steam Locomotive"][/caption]



The first man in the United States to sense the growing need for time standardization was an amateur astronomer, William Lambert, who as early as 1809 presented to Congress a recommendation for the establishment of time meridians. This was not adopted, nor was the initial suggestion of Charles Dowd of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1870. Dowd revised his proposal in 1872, and it was adopted virtually unchanged by U.S. and Canadian railways eleven years later.



Detroit kept local time until 1900, when the City Council decreed that clocks should be put back 28 minutes to Central Standard Time. Half the city obeyed, while half refused. After considerable debate, the decision was rescinded and the city reverted to sun time. A derisive offer to erect a sundial in front of the city hall was referred to the Committee on Sewers. Then, in 1905, Central Standard Time was adopted by city vote.



It remained for a Canadian civil and railway engineer, Sandford Fleming, to instigate the initial effort that led to the adoption of the present time meridians in both Canada and the U.S. Time zones were first used by the railroads in 1883 to standardize their schedules. Canada's Sir Sandford Fleming (posing at left, at the driving the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Sandford Fleming wears the stovepipe hat and is to the left of the man with the hammer) also played a key role in the development of a worldwide system of keeping time. Trains had made the old system - where major cities and regions set clocks according to local astronomical conditions - obsolete. Fleming advocated the adoption of a standard or mean time and hourly variations from that according to established time zones. He was instrumental in convening the 1884 International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, at which the system of international standard time - still in use today - was adopted.



Although the large railway systems in U.S. and Canada adopted standard time at noon on November 18, 1883, it was many years before such time was actually used by the people themselves.



The use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communication and travel. Standard time in time zones was established by U.S. law with the Standard Time Act of 1918, enacted on March 19. Congress adopted standard time zones based on those set up by the railroads, and gave the responsibility to make any changes in the time zones to the Interstate Commerce Commission, the only federal transportation regulatory agency at the time. When Congress created the Department of Transportation in 1966, it transferred the responsibility for the time laws to the new department.

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