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A Matter of Time ... Standard Time

Wheels of Time is in the midst of developing new railroad cars and vehicles for this year and next. It has me in a reflective mood, and I have been thinking about 'time'. Today, we take time for granted. However, there is one single event that has had profound and continued influence on the way we experience time: November 18, 1883 marked the beginnings of "Standard Time."

Before that fateful day in November, each town and every farmer kept their own time. 12 noon was defined when the sun crossed the meridian, an imaginary line in the sky running from north to south. Sun dials work this way ....  But by this measure, noon is different in every longitude on Earth: starting in New York City, noon comes 1 minute later for about every 13.5 miles that you travel westerly.When the railroads made it possible to travel from New York City to Philadelphia in hours instead of over the course of a day, it became important to be able to synchronize clocks so you could get picked up at your destination. 12 noon in NYC was 11:55 am in Philadelphia, 11:47 am in Washington D.C.  Illinois alone had 27 different local times. Wisconsin had 38.

In 1872, the Time-Table Convention (which would later become the Association of American Railroads) was founded to come up with a solution. Charles F. Dowd, principal of Temple Grove Seminary, suggested a system of time zones. Sir Sandford Fleming (representing a Canadian railroad) argued for a similar scheme at the American Society of Civil Engineers. Congress resisted for years.

So the railroads acted on their own initiative, and in 1883, with William Allen of the Official Guide of Railways, developed the idea of four time zones -- Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific.  Each was centered on the 75th meridian of longitude at the cities of Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, Fresno. The system was immediately adopted by all railroads, the city of New York, and the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory - the nation's official timekeeper - ignoring the U.S. Attorney General's protests in Washington that it shouldn't be adopted since it needed congressional approval. The rest is history.

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