NPF: TIMELY

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 29th, 2015 by Ed

As I was rushing home from work to change, pack, and start rushing to the airport to catch a flight I thought, as I often do in these situations, how recent a development in human history the concept of punctuality is. Don't worry, this isn't going to get metaphysical. I mean actual time. On a clock. The idea that the time where I am standing is the same as the time at my destination is more recent than most people imagine. Clocks have been around for ages, of course, and sundials even longer. The idea of coordinating time from place to place, though, is 132 years old. In the grand scheme of things, that isn't much. With Daylight Savings upon us this weekend it seems an appropriate time to tell one of my favorite tales.

Prior to 1883 every local jurisdiction in the United States essentially kept its own time. They were at first widely divergent, and with 19th Century developments like railroads and the telegraph they diverged less but still bore only an approximate relationship from place to place. In 1880, for example, when it was midnight in New York it was 11:55 in Philadelphia, 11:47 in Washington D.C., and 11:38 in Buffalo. This disparity had two sources. One, each locality set noon at the point at which the sun was at its highest at that specific spot on the Earth, meaning that noon was not the same at any two points. Second and more importantly, the means of keeping time and communicating among different places to coordinate simply weren't that precise.

The biggest complainants about this system, predictably, were railroads and telegraph companies. A train could arrive in St. Louis with the conductor showing official railroad time of noon while everyone in St. Louis was under the impression that it was, say, 12:45. To make things worse, each railroad was setting its own time as were other entities like banks, Western Union, city governments, churches, and so on. In short an invitation to meet someone at noon on Oct. 1 would guarantee that all parties involved would be there at something approximating noon. You had to be prepared to wait around, not to tap your watch at 12:04 and say "That's it, I'm out of here."

Time Zones were the most logical solution to the problem, and I think most people would be surprised to know that before a bunch of railroad magnates met in Chicago in 1883 to adopt a universal standard time, they not only didn't exist but were considered a crackpot idea on par with alchemy or letting women vote. After debating proposals to divide the US into either four or five time zones they ultimately adopted the Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time system we use today (with Atlantic time for the extreme eastern parts of Canada). A railroad baron named William Allen deserves the credit for the system adopted, although as early as 1870 an academic named Charles Dowd was advocating for something similar.

The big day on which every clock would move forward or backward to reflect the new temporal reality was Sunday, November 18, 1883. All United States and Canadian railroads would, on a telegraph signal from the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh at exactly noon, coordinate accordingly. Around the country people reacted with the kind of calmness with which Americans have always greeted useful changes.

No I'm just kidding, people lost their shit. Fanned by histrionic newspaper editorials and whispers of sinister forces motivating the change (let's say, I don't know, Jews) the natural tendency of our nation to resist any and all change was on full display. The power and wealth of the railroads won out in the end though. Crowds gathered around public clocks in city squares and railroad stations to see man's foolhardy attempt to control nature in the flesh. At the appointed moment, clock hands were wound a few inches forward or backward. I wasn't there, but I'm going to assume that at this point everyone made that "Is that it? I stood outside for two hours for that?" face that is equal parts embarrassment and disappointment. Nothing could be less exciting than watching the adjustment of a clock, and I suspect that at least a few people learned a valuable lesson that day about getting caught up in hysteria.

But probably not.