Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Keeping track of time

North American time zones were established 132 years ago by the big American and Canadian railroad companies that decided they could no longer keep track of the different local times observed in every town on their transcontinental routes.

The four time zones we have today—Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific—were created on November 18, 1883,with roughly their current boundaries by arbitrary action of the railroads. Almost immediately there was widespread adoption of the new time conventions.

Previously, almost every town in America followed the ancient custom of establishing 12:00 pm at the time that the sun was at its highest in the sky. The railroads had the incredibly confusing task of publishing train schedules that tried to keep track of every locally designated arrival and departure time on every route.

In the early stages of railroad travel the problem wasn’t really acute, because trains moved relatively slowly. As speeds increased, the number of towns on a typical day-trip route increased, thus greatly complicating the preparation and publication of train schedules, and frustrating the highly publicized efforts of railroads to “run on time.” Moreover, a traveler faced the unprecedented challenge of covering enough distance in a short time to make it obligatory to adjust his timepiece repeatedly.

The four time zones were universally recognized but they weren’t officially endorsed by the federal government until 1918, when Congress put the administration of time zones under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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