The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

All Aboard for Standard Railroad Time

Photo by Tomasz G. Sienicki ,CC 2.5

In the mid 19th century, a new invention swept the nation that would forever change how transportation and communication worked. The First Transcontinental Railroad was built, spanning the U.S. from San Francisco Bay to Council Bluffs, Iowa.

It was the start of a wonderful thing.

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But realization dawned upon the railroad companies. At the time, towns depended on their own local clocks to keep the time – thus leading to discrepancies between the times. When the ceremonial golden spike was to be driven into the ground to celebrate the opening of the Pacific Railroad in 1869, telegraphers declared the exact moment it happened. But the reported time varied from city to city. Even just in San Francisco, the reported time was both 11:44 and 11:46.

A number of time-keeping methods were used at the time. Many people still judged the time based on the placement of the sun in the sky. Local city times used town clocks based on the meridian of a certain location. Meanwhile, before the reform, railroads ran on time based on the town they had left from. The railroad timetables were very complicated.

Railroad officials knew they had to fix this. The time imbalance could only spell trouble for railroad workers and passengers.

So one man stepped up to make a more reasonable time synchronization. Charles Ferdinand Dowd, a teacher in New York, started designing a standard Railway Time. He made the plan that we’re familiar with today, where standard time is based on time zones. He moved the meridian time to the neutral Greenwich Mean time.

In 1873, railroad managers collectively took a look at Dowd’s plan and gave it praise. However, no action was made to establish the time zone plan.

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Then Sanford Fleming came along. He recommended a worldwide Standard Time and four time zones across the U.S. based on the Greenwich Mean Time. The secretary of the General Time Convention at the time, William F. Allen, liked Fleming’s plan and worked hard to establish the system.

Finally, in 1883, railroad heads all agreed to establish five time zones based on Fleming and Allen’s collective plans. It took some time for people to adjust but soon the plan proved itself to be incredibly useful, all thanks to the railroad system.

In 1999, the North America Railway Hall of Fame inducted Standard Time into its category of technical innovations.

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