All Aboard for Standard Railroad Time

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.


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.


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.

What Happened to Pocket Watches?

Pocket watches used to be the necessary accessories to any gentleman’s waistcoat pocket. They brought charm and practicality to any ensemble.

The first timepieces were worn in the 16th century in Europe, at a size somewhere between clocks and watches, worn around the neck. Early versions had no glass to protect the dial.

Sure, they got heavy, and only had hour hands, but someone had to keep the time.Pocketwatch03

Pocket watches appeared for men in the 17th century, with women still wearing watches as pendants. The watches were luxury items for a while, but became common by the end of the 18th century.

This came with the attempt to standardize time to make public services more precise and aid scientific experiments. In 1891 a train’s engineer’s watch ran four minutes behind and caused an infamous Ohio train wreck, pushing the change.

Later on, a family in Switzerland headed the watchmaking business with streamlining production in an efficient way, leading to a larger watch industry. This included the American Watch Company, which was able to make over 50,000 watches a year.PocketWatch02

After all this, wristwatches took over in the 20th century. Before then many men considered wristwatches too feminine, but the advent of World War I brought the practicality of wristwatches into view, where officers found them more convenient on the wrist than kept in a pocket and liable to fall out.

While pocket watches declined in popularity, they continued to be used at railroads, where as proved by the Ohio accident, precise timekeeping was necessary.

An antique, early 1900s pocket watch, available here.

An antique, early 1900s pocket watch, available here.

Today, the practicality of cell phones usually wins over other timepieces. Pocket watches are used simply as fashion statements instead, some of which don’t even tell time.

If you’re lucky, however, you can find a good, handmade vintage pocket watch that looks stylish and tells time.