As railroads expanded around the world, local time schedules became increasingly problematic.
This problem of differing local times could not be solved across large areas without synchronizing clocks, but in many places the local time would then differ markedly from the solar time to which people were accustomed.
The first railroad to adopt a standard time was the Great Western Railway in November 1840, referring to time as Railway time.
The first adaptation of standard time in the world was established on December 1, 1847, in Great Britain by railway companies using GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) kept by portable chronometers.
The increase in worldwide communication further increased the need for interacting parties to communicate mutually comprehensible time references to one another.
Timekeeping on American railroads in the mid-19th century was somewhat confused. Each railroad used its own standard time, usually based on the local time of its headquarters or most important terminus, and each railroad’s train schedules were published using its own time. Some major railroad junctions served by several different railroads had a separate clock for each railroad, each showing a different time; the main station in Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania, for example, kept six different times.
Charles F. Dowd proposed a system of one-hour standard time zones for American railroads about 1863, although he published nothing on the matter at that time and did not consult railroad officials until 1869.
On November 2, 1868, the then-British colony of New Zealand officially adopted a standard time zone to be observed throughout the colony, and was perhaps the first country to do so. It was based on the longitude 172°30′ East of Greenwich, that is 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT. This standard was known as New Zealand Mean Time.
Time zones were a compromise, relaxing the complex geographic dependence while still allowing local time to approximate the mean solar time.
In 1870, Charles F. Dowd proposed four ideal time zones (having north–south borders), the first centered on Washington, D.C., but by 1872 the first was centered 75°W of Greenwich, with geographic borders (for example, sections of the Appalachian Mountains).
Dowd’s system was never accepted by American railroads.
Instead, U.S. and Canadian railroads implemented a version proposed by William F. Allen, the editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide.
The borders of its time zones ran through railroad stations, often in major cities. For example, the border between its Eastern and Central time zones ran through Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Charleston.
This was inaugurated on Sunday, November 18, 1883, also called “The Day of Two Noons” when each railroad station clock was reset as standard-time noon was reached within each time zone. The zones were named Intercolonial (now known as Atlantic Time in eastern Canada), Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Within one year, 85% of all cities with populations over 10,000, about 200 cities, were using standard time.
A notable exception was Detroit (which is about half-way between the meridians of eastern time and central time), which kept local time until 1900, then tried Central Standard Time, local mean time, and Eastern Standard Time before a May 1915 ordinance settled on EST and was ratified by popular vote in August 1916.
The confusion of times came to an end when Standard zone time was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918.
U.S. Commissioner of Railroads William H. Armstrong gave the following account of the new railroad time system in his Report to the Secretary of the Interior for 1883:
The question of uniform time standards for railways of the United States has long attracted the attention of railway managers, but Mr. W. F. Allen, editor of the Traveler’s Official Guide, and secretary of the time conventions, is entitled to the credit of having perfected the admirable system which was adopted by the general time convention of railway managers, held at Chicago, October 11, 1883, and ratified by the southern railway time convention, held at New York, October 17, 1883.
As this is a subject of great interest to the entire country, a brief synopsis of the general principles governing the proposed plan is deemed appropriate in this report.
Under the present system each railway is operated independently on the local time of some principal point or points on said road, but this plan was found to be highly objectionable because some fifty standards, intersecting and interlacing each other, were in use throughout the country. By the plan which has been adopted this number will be reduced to four, the difference in time being one hour between each, viz, the 75th, 90th, 105th, and 120th degrees of longitude west from Greenwich. The adoption of these standards will not cause a difference of more than thirty minutes from the local time at any point which is now used as a standard. The new arrangement goes into effect November 18, 1883, and all changes of time are to occur at the termini of roads, or at the ends of divisions. The seventy-fifth meridian being almost precisely the central meridian for the system of roads now using standards based upon the time of the Eastern cities, and the ninetieth meridian being equally central for roads now running by the time of Western cities, the time of these meridians has been adopted for the territory which includes 90 % of the whole railway system of the country. Nearly all of the larger cities have abolished local time and adopted that of the nearest standard meridian in use by the railways.
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