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.

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42 Responses to “NPF: TIMELY”

  1. Andrew Laurence Says:

    Actually, the EXTREME eastern portion of Canada (the island of Newfoundland, part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador) is on its own time zone, 30 minutes east of Atlantic time.

  2. Anubis Bard Says:

    "the kind of calmness with which Americans have always greeted useful changes." A lovely turn of phrase.

  3. schmitt trigger Says:

    Hopefully you may be able to expand -some time into the future- how London, or more precisely Greenwich, became hour zero to which all other world times are now referenced.

  4. svnski Says:

    Fantastic, Ed. You're like a cruder, funnier Bill Bryson sometimes.

  5. OtherAndrew Says:


    GMT is the standard because Britain had been using the Greenwich meridian for longitudinal navigation for a long, long time before railway time was established – they just didn't use it for "time zones". Navigational time was set to GMT; shipboard time would be set according to the sun.

    Most other countries followed GMT in their navigation because British observations at Greenwich were the most accurate and so led to better naval navigation. Because GMT was the standard in naval coordination, it was natural and easy to adopt for railway time.

  6. lb22 Says:

    Doesnt Sanford Flemming get a shout out?

  7. Skipper Says:

    Ain't nobody got time for that.

  8. Noskilz Says:


  9. Gil More Says:

    How about the International Date Line ? Cross some imaginary line in the middle of the ocean and you lose or gain a day.

    From the LA to Sydney you just lose one whole day. Come back, and they give it back.

    If you take a cruise ship there, you lose a day somewhere near Tahiti. Then you spend 14 hours in a tin can flying back and they tell you it's 5 hours earlier than it was you left.

    Taint right.

  10. Kaleberg Says:

    For GMT fans:

    The actual meridien is marked by a dustbin i.e. trashcan.

    I gather GMT was adopted around the same time as time zones, at the 1884 International Meridian Conference.

  11. Kaleberg Says:

    My favorite daylight savings time story was in the 1950 World Almanac:

    "In 1949, Grand Central Terminal Station in New York City, used by more passengers than any other railroad station in the country, adopted two sets of summer time. The New York Central adhered to eastern standard time. The New Haven changed to daylight saving time. While trains departed on their regular schedules, they were apparently an hour apart. To accomodate travelers, all clocks were furnished with an extra hour-hand. "

    Now, there's a solution for you.

  12. Katydid Says:

    An extra hour of sleep? I can get behind that–you'll hear no complaining from me. Losing an hour of sleep in the spring? That's another story.

  13. Katydid Says:

    P.S. Very entertainingly written, Ed! I particularly chuckled at the idea of Americans taking to change calmly.

  14. Jimcat Says:

    "With Daylight Savings upon us this weekend…" Unless this is a re-post from the spring, then it's actually the end of Daylight Savings which is upon us this weekend.

    Also, let's not forget how the US Congress pushed the end of DST back from October to November, at least partially because of the Big Candy lobby, which wanted trick-or-treaters to have an extra hour of light in the evening on Halloween.

    Finally, to anyone about to fire up your keyboard and type "It's called Daylight SAVING Time": fuck you. Accepted usage changes over time, people have been saying "Daylight Savings Time" since I was a child in the 70's, and if you say "Daylight Saving Time", you sound like a stupid doody head. Neener neener.

  15. H.M.S. Blankenship Says:

    Good post; thanks for this. & even though Americans are most exceptional when they are resisting the metric system on biblical grounds (to choose one example), I think a lot of the ordinary folks resisted the adoption of the Julian calendar in much the same spirit. "Give us back our ten days!"

  16. Nate Says:

    There was a lot of P in your NPF today. Not that I mind…

  17. Major Kong Says:

    Hard to imagine how a country with units of measure like a "fifth" and a "shot" finds the metric system confusing but we do somehow.

  18. well mostly Says:

    Just spent some time in a small town where the PO has a clock tower with bells that chime on the hour. Even though clocks are everywhere, somehow that quaint holdover is highly satisfying, almost relaxing: you see people stop what they're doing to count along with the chimes up to the current hour. As if this is really what time it is. I remember my grandfather's daily ritual of winding and setting his pocket watch. Never thought about what he set it to. Maybe that's where radio came in for folks in the country-they're always telling us the time.
    Thanks for the story. Perhaps it explains why people used to put "round about" in front of an agreed on time. At least where I'm from they did and still do.

  19. doug Says:

    'Around the country people reacted with the kind of calmness with which Americans have always greeted useful changes.'

    Did anyone claim to be 'fair and balanced' and ride the country side for years afterwards saying the new system did not work?

    Or have we devolved since then?

  20. chris y Says:


    GMT was established as the standard because to calculate longitude with a chronometer, you have to have a base line against which to measure your local midday reading. It was Greenwich rather than Paris or den Haag or New York simply because the technique was established first by Britain.

    GMT has now been formally replaced as the standard by UTC (temps universel coordonné), which is basically GMT upgraded for the age of atomic clocks.

  21. F U Says:

    you're a hideous asshole.

  22. chopper Says:

    Marshal Efron explains it all.

  23. chopper Says:

    Sorry….didn't mean to embed it.

  24. Skepticalist Says:


  25. Skipper Says:

    @Major Kong

    It's a golf thing. There are 18 shots (one per hole) in a fifth of liquor.

  26. Emerson Dameron Says:

    Way, way OT, but Ed and some of his fans may be interested…

  27. fasteddie Says:

    walk by it every day…

  28. el mago Says:

    When I was a kid and DST was being debated in Idaho, a Native American remarked that the concept is like cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other, an insight that still resonates with me.
    Some Colorado legislator now proposes that the state switch to DST year round, the reasoning behind which eludes me.
    There are certainly two things (among many others) this culture is hung up about: time and the weather; I'm not exempt.

  29. mothra Says:

    Oh, I live in a state where most residents still set their own times. So, if you have an appointment with someone at noon, you'd best not get itchy if they haven't shown up by 12:05. Or 12:15, for that matter.

    I never knew why Congress moved the change; thanks Jimcat for the illumination. Figured it had to be linked to capitalism in some way or another. Also, we should just switch to calling it "Summer Time" and "Winter Time" as they do in Europe. Because we aren't saving anything, really, are we?

  30. Tim H. Says:

    DST doesn't qualify as a useful change.

  31. Andrew Laurence Says:

    No, but leaving the clocks on DST year round would be fine. So would leaving them on standard time year round. Changing them twice annually, especially when not everyone does it the same way, is bone stupid.

  32. Brian Says:

    So, with modern technology, we could go back to local time. Making noon be whenever the sun reaches zenith at my exact latitude/longitude.

    Schedules could be completely localized to indicate when the bus/train/plain/boat will arrive.

    Internet and phone communications could always tell you the exact time of the location you are trying to contact.

    Using true local noon will necessarily render DST and Timezones obsolete.

  33. Scout Says:

    I live in AZ where we don't bother with that daylight whatever whatever because we're so enlightened. Oh, wait…

  34. Skepticalist Says:

    One plus for time change is that kids don't necessarily have to go to school in the dark.

  35. Kaleberg Says:

    The US is half metric. A fifth meant a fifth of a gallon or about 750ml. Look at your next standard sized bottle of wine or liquor. It'll be 750ml. Soft drinks, however, are sold in liters, but liquid milk products in quarts and the like. Granted, if you buy a computer in France, the screen size will be measured in pouces which are inches (literally thumbs). Australia is metric, but you still buy land by the acre, not by the hectare.

    Weights and measures are totally idiosyncratic. I remember an essay in the IEEE discussing why capacitors come in microfarads (10^-6) and picofarads (10^-12) but never in nanofarads (10^-9). Maybe capacitors denominated in nanofarads they are considered unlucky. Make up your own origin story here.

  36. Cody Says:

    In fact, Greenwich is GMT because Airy (at the time a very famous physicist and still known now for Airy rings in diffraction) had designed and oversaw an astonishingly accurate observatory there. He's one of the cooler guys in science history.

  37. Katydid Says:

    @Skepticalist: where I live high school starts at 7 am and the school bus arrives at 5:45 am to take the kids on a 45-minute bus ride around the rush-hour traffic picking up other kids. Then the kids stand outside in the dark for another 20 minutes, then have 10 minutes in the building to get to their lockers and thence to their first class. Not to worry, though–there are very few windows, and those are only on the fourth floor, so the kids have no idea what the sun is doing all day.

  38. Sandford Fleming Says:

    Hey – what about me?

    Standard Time was invented by Scottish Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming in 1878.

  39. Frankly Says:

    I used to date a girl whose family had a summer cabin in Michelle Bachmanns district of Minnesota. A lot of the locals refused to adjust for daylight savings time insisting that it was messing with "Gods time". Idiocy like that explains her election.

  40. Frankly Says:

    schmitt trigger Says:
    October 29th, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    It had to do with global navigation. In order to determine longitude you needed to know the time of a set event (say the setting sun or rise of a specific star) at a set place on earth and the time of that same event where you were. The time difference gives you your location East-West of that set place. Since The English we huge into naval navigation and it was an Englishman that came up with the technique the port of Greenwich became that set point.

    The search for a reliable method to determine longitude is a fascinating story full of science both good and bad, intrigue, bad faith and dirty dealing.

  41. jharp Says:

    Too lazy to do the google right now and read the previous posts.

    But there was a calendar adjustment made in the 1760's or so when something like 8 or 12 days "disappeared".

    Basically you went to bed on November 6 and woke up the next day, on the 16th.

  42. jrkrideau Says:

    The 1752 switch was basically the English speaking world. Most of Europe had changed over a 150 or so years earlier.