On November 18, 1883, precisely at noon, North American railroads switched to a new standard time system for rail operations, which they called Standard Railway Time(SRT). Almost immediately after being implemented, many American cities enacted ordinances, thus resulting in the creation of time “zones.” The four standard time zones adopted were Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Though tailored to the railroad companies’ train schedules, the new system was quickly adopted nationwide, forestalling federal intervention in civil time for more than thirty years, until 1918, when daylight saving time was introduced.
Before clocks, people marked time by the sun and the phases of the moon. With the development of the railway and the invention of the telegraph, accurate time became more important. Prior to adopting SRT, trains traveling east or west between towns had a difficult time maintaining coherent schedules and smooth operations. The new time zones were each one-hour wide, simplifying train schedules and virtually everything else in increasingly industrialized America.
The SRT system was based on geography, economics, the locations of major cities, and the habits and needs of the populace. The one-hour difference in zones was a result of the fact that fifteen degrees of longitude corresponds to one-hour difference in solar time. It was decided that official time would correspond to the mean solar time of the closest meridian of longitude that could be divided evenly by fifteen degrees and was referenced to the meridian at Greenwich, England. There are twenty-four meridians fifteen degrees apart that circle the globe, beginning with Greenwich, the “prime” meridian.
Impetus for the adoption of standardized time, however, did not originate with the railroads. Astronomers and geophysicists, trying to get simultaneous observations from scattered geographical locations, had long advocated standardized time.
Beginning in 1875, Cleveland Abbe—astronomer, meteorologist, and the first head of the U.S. Weather Bureau—lobbied the American Meteorological Society (AMS) to take action on a uniform standard time. The AMS then established the Committee on Standard Time and named Abbe chairman. In 1879, the committee’s Report on Standard Time, the key document leading to the implementation of standard time in the U.S., was released. In 1881, the railroad industry’s General Time Convention (GTC), a group of officials involved in scheduling, took up the proposal for standardizing time and in 1883, convinced by the AMS report, decided to adopt SRT. The following year, a conference in Washington took up the proposal for international implementation.
The goals of the 1884 International Meridian ConferenceExternal, were to agree on a common initial meridian (in consideration of the longstanding preference for the Greenwich meridian) and ultimately to standardize time worldwide. A globally recognized initial (prime) meridian had to be established because, unlike latitude, there is no obvious starting point for the meridian lines around the globe that specify east-west positions of longitude, and thus one had to be designated and agreed upon. Greenwich, England, site of the Royal Observatory, was already widely used by mariners, mapmakers, and navigators, and was the prime candidate. Its selection by the railroads also forestalled potential conflict between U.S. cities vying for the honor. International time zones were established according to the SRT system that was implemented in 1893, creating Universal Time (UT) based on the Greenwich meridian, which became “time zero.” The twenty-four standard meridians marked the centers of the zones around the globe.
- The Library’s collections of sound recordings include a wealth of “train songs.” Search the following collections on train and railroad to listen to many examples:
- Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection
- Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940 to 1941
- “ Now What a Time”: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley State Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943. For example, listen to “Fast Train,” performed by John Lee Thomas, harmonica, 1941.
- Search the collection Railroad Maps, 1828 to 1900 to find more maps of the railroad routes.
- Visit the following collections to read first-hand experiences of people who followed the railroad lines west:
- Search Today in History on railroad or train to find features on the early railroads, such as the first regularly scheduled passenger train, the first train robbery, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Oahu Railway, and the Florida East Coast Railway.
- The Library’s Science Reference Services has compiled a list of resources to help explore the concept of Time.
- The following collections also have materials on time and industries:
- A search on time in Cornell University Libraries’ Making of AmericaExternal collection yields several hundred articles on various aspects of time. One example is an Open LetterExternal published in the September 1883 issue of The Century discussing the merits of Standard Railway Time.
- Search the prints, photos collections on the terms railroad, train, or clock to discover more photographs.
- View the Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793 to 1919 documenting Morse’s invention of the electromagnetic telegraph. For example, see the image of Samuel F. B. Morse’s colored sketch of a railway signal telegraph, ca. 1838.
- Visit the National Institute of Standards exhibition, A Walk Through Time to find out more about the history of standardized time.