The Transcontinental Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad

A History of Railroad Technology

Time Standardization

At high noon on Promontory Point, May 10, 1869, a crowd of railroad workers, government officials, and railroad supervisors gathered to watch the driving of the final, ceremonial golden spike. Officials from the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific stood ready. Reporters from over 20 newspapers were in attendance to report the story to a curious public, but the first transmission of the news was the responsibility of the telegraphers.

Telegraph wires had been attached to both the spike and the maul, exemplifying the union of the country. When the maul struck the spike, the exact moment in time would be transmitted along telegraph lines to reporters waiting in cities and towns across the entire nation. The opening ceremony was a disorganized affair and the crowd waited an additional 45 minutes for Leland Stanford to raise the silver maul that would drive the golden spike. Stanford swung the maul and an eager telegrapher relayed the message, "Done!" The moment was recorded, but with no time standards in place, the time the golden spike was driven was reported in accordance with local time across the country: 12:45 p.m. at Promontory Point, 12:30 p.m. in Virginia City, both 11:44 and 11:46 a.m. in San Francisco, and 2:47 p.m. in Washington D.C.

The rail station in Boston featured a prominent clock tower that helped travelers and stationary citizens maintain a schedule that was synchronized to local time. Image source: Railroad Gazette. Vol. 7, no. 25, New York: Railroad gazette., 1875, p. 253.

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When the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad formed the Pacific Railroad, later called the transcontinental railroad, more than 8,000 towns were using their own local time and over 53,000 miles of track had been laid across the United States. Railroad managers and supervisors well understood the problems caused by so many discrepancies in time keeping.

In the mid-19th century, three types of time measurements were used: natural time, local time, and de facto railroad time. Time based on the natural movement of the sun throughout the day was still in use by individuals and was especially suited to an agrarian society. Local time used synchronized astronomical time, based on time at the meridian of a specific location. It was displayed by town clocks and was useful for civil government and to anyone needing to synchronize a watch. Railroads ran on the time kept in the city where the line originated. Travelers by train would be synchronized with local time at only one point in their journey. In the late 1840s, New England railroads began publishing monthly schedules, which they called timetables, to coordinate time between train lines. Eighty different timetables were in use in the U.S. by the 1860s, making connections between train lines very difficult. The British had already addressed the issue of railway time in 1847, using the meridian of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, hence Greenwich Mean Time. The smaller size of England made the problem easier to resolve since it required only one time zone.

By the 1860s, ascertaining the time for connections between trainlines was complicated. Image source: Thompson, Slason. A Short History of American Railways. Chicago: Bureau of Railway News and Statistics, 1925, p. 164.

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In the late 1860s, Charles Ferdinand Dowd developed the first comprehensive, practical plan for time standardization in the United States. Dowd ran Temple Grove Seminary, a school for girls in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was not a railroad man, but he developed his interest in timetables and time standards as a teacher posing a problem to his students. In 1869, he wrote his first standard for Railway Time. Dowd's original concept was to create one time zone, like Great Britain, using Washington, D.C. as the national meridian. Since the railroads were at the heart of commerce, their needs were often given primacy, but no one at that time would accept the radical idea of changing local time. Dowd recommended that cities and towns could use their local time and railroads would use Railway Time. With this plan, any locale would only have two time standards to reconcile. In order to simplify the matter further, translation tables between the two times could be issued regularly and sold as a pamphlet or gazette. However, with the joining of the country by the transcontinental railroad and the lengthening of other rail lines, Dowd soon realized that the difference in local time for a single train line could be enormous.

After receiving tentative approval from some of the railroad companies, Dowd developed his plan to include time standards in hour sections, or time zones, positioned similarly to those in use today. In 1872, railroad superintendents Robert HarrisJoseph. F. Boyd and E. G. Barney tried to convince Dowd to move his meridian from Washington to New York. To avoid further argument on the position of the meridian, Dowd sought a more neutral location and recommended Greenwich Mean Time. In 1873, a group of railroad managers and supervisors came together at the General Time Convention and passed a vote commending Dowd's work. With this vote, a resolution looked promising, but the Convention members took no further action, and by the late 1870s, Dowd and his plan for time standardization plan were all but forgotten.

Scottish-born, Canadian engineer Sanford Fleming is credited with being the Father of Time Standards. Fleming spent his career working for the railroads, first as a surveyor, then over-seeing construction, and later supervising railroad maintenance. He was quite familiar with the issue of Railway Time. Fleming published his first pamphlet Terrestrial Time in 1878. Fleming's plan was similar to that of Charles Dowd, and he acknowledged Dowd's contribution to his work, but Fleming took his time standardization plan to the next level. He recommended international standards, citing the circumstances of a steam ship traveler from Great Britain who upon arrival in North America transfers to a train.

This clock demonstrated one of the recommendations for a system of 24-hour, standardized time that would be unique to U.S. railroads. Using this system, 1:30 a.m. would be B:30 and 1:30 p.m. would be N:30. Image source: Railroad Gazette. Vol. 14, no. 6, [vol. 1, no. 6, first quarto volume], New York: Railroad gazette., 7 May 1870, p. 121

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The interest in Fleming's time standards would probably have also waned, if not for William F. Allen railroad engineer and editor of the Official Guide to the Railways, and eventually Secretary of the General Time Convention. Allen knew that military and the scientific communities also had an interest in time, but as editor to a guide of timetables, he was immersed in the problem daily. With the railroads holding a core economic position in both the United States and Canada, the support of railroad management was key to any standardization plan. Allen called for "unity of action" and worked tirelessly to publicize the information needed to develop consensus for ratifying Railway Time.

Allen travelled throughout the country, gauging the level of willingness to adapt and presenting the plan as iterated by the General Time Convention. He met with railroad men and surveyed railroad supervisors and managers. All persons questioned favored a comprehensive system of standard time for North America. The plan that Allen disseminated combined Dowd's and Fleming's plans and proposed the concept of International Time as an eventual, although not immediate, outcome. The standard was based on a 24-hour clock and was not meant to compete with local time or, more importantly, with the purveyors of local time. The Naval Observatory provided a time signal by dropping a time ball at noon, and the Navy also transmitted a time signal by telegraph line to their ports. The Harvard College Observatory sold a standardized telegraphic transmission of their local time signal. Keepers of public clocks and fire bells, jewelers, and builders of apparatus for dropping time balls also had a financial stake in regulating time.

The General Time Convention specified five time standards, called zones today, one on the Atlantic and four for the continental United States. The standards were identified as Eastern Time on the 75th meridian; Valley Time at the 90th meridian, later called Central; Mountain Time on the 105th meridian; and Pacific Time on the 120th meridian. Eastern time was four minutes slower than New York Time and Valley Time was nine minutes slower than Chicago Time. The time standards were structured around five governing principles, meant to address the concerns of railroad management and workers. The principles stated that:

  1. Railway time would never vary more than 30 minutes from local time and translation tables would be provided for anyone still wanting to use local time.
  2. Time standards would be organized to cover as many rail lines as possible.
  3. Standards will vary by one hour.
  4. Standards will be made at well-known points of departure.
  5. Changes will be made at the end of rail lines except for where unavoidable, as in the case of transcontinental lines.

At the General Time Convention of October 1883, the new standards were unanimously approved. At noon on November 18, 1883 at the 75th meridian (Eastern Time) the railroads changed over to the new time standards to be known as "Railroad and Telegraph Time." When the transcontinental railroad tied the nation together physically, a regional problem became a national one. Agreement on the standardization of time took place 20 years after Dowd's 1869 proposal, but with the force of the railroads behind it, the measurement of time by these standards was eventually adopted by commerce, government, and individuals throughout the country.