Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 272:
STANDARD TIME

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 272.

Today, we talk about railways, clocks, and individualism. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Have you ever wondered how -- when the wagons moved west -- the settlers set their watches after they got to Sleepy Snake, Nevada? They didn't have TV or radios. What did they use? And how did their watches compare when they met their neighbors from Broken Axle, Utah?

Watches in Sleepy Snake simply didn't match the ones in Broken Axle. For that matter, the clocks in Philadelphia didn't match the ones in New Haven, either. When we started building railroads in the 1830s, something had to be done about time. Outside the station, trains ran both ways on a single track. Northbound trains had to know when to expect southbound trains.

So the railroads became law unto themselves as far as time was concerned. At first railroad personnel agreed on time as best they could. But something better was needed, and the new telegraph systems provided the means. In 1851 a director of the Harvard Observatory developed a system for telegraphing time to the railroads.

And this, in turn, raised another question: "Whose time should be given out?" Sailors the world over agreed on Greenwich Meridian time. But American nationalism didn't permit that on dry land. Instead, the railroads adopted a set of time standards -- each one tied to a different city -- and they became the public standard. We eventually reached a kind of time Babel. By 1879 we set our clocks by 75 different railroad standard times. Objective voices in general, and scientists in particular, begged for a uniform national standard.

In 1885 the railroads finally agreed to standardize on common time zones. That March, they all adjusted their clocks a few minutes -- one way or the other -- to fit into one of four zones. But the clocks around them didn't change. The railroads were powerful, and the public deeply distrusted them. We wouldn't buy into the railroad standard until 1918. And after that, railroad independence remained. From 1920 to 1967 the railways wouldn't acknowledge daylight saving time.

All the tools for setting up time-standards were in hand by 1850. But in 1850 Sacramento and Hartford might as well have been on different planets. We didn't feel much need for a standard. After all, individualism is too precious to give up just because technology says it's sensible to do so. We don't accept a standard -- we don't abdicate individualism -- until necessity forces it. And that's really the way things should be.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Stephens, C., 'The Most Reliable Time': William Bond, the New England Railroads, and Time Awareness in 19th-Century America. Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1989, pp. 1-24.

Bartky, I.R., The Adoption of Standard Time. Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1989, pp. 25-56.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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