America Institutes First National Time Zones 

America Institutes First National Time Zones 

U.S. #3757 from the American Design Series.
U.S. #3757 from the American Design Series.

On November 18, 1883, U.S. and Canadian railroad companies jointly adopted five standard continental time zones.

Before the invention of clock, communities marked the time of day with apparent solar time, usually with a sundial. This meant the time could be slightly different in each settlement. With the advent of mechanical clocks, people still used the sun, but times could still differ by around 15 minutes.

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was established when the Royal Observatory was built in 1675, giving the people of England a standard reference time. Great Britain railway companies using GMT on portable chronometers adopted the first standard time on December 1, 1847. Even still, it was a difficult transition for people used to using solar time. But it became a necessity for countries to establish time zones domestically as well as for dealings with other countries.

U.S. #3762 – American Clock Silk First Day Cover.
U.S. #3762 – American Clock Silk First Day Cover.

In America, timekeeping was confusing. Railroads had made it possible to journey long distances in short amount of times. But each railroad used its own standard time, often based on the local time of their headquarters or largest station. Cities that had several railroads passing through would have clocks for each railroad, each with a different time.

U.S. #114 from the Pictorial Series.
U.S. #114 from the Pictorial Series.

Charles F. Dowd was one of the first Americans to propose a system of one-hour standard time zones for use by American railroads as early as 1863. He’d shared the idea with a class he was teaching at the time, but didn’t address railroad officials until 1869. Dowd’s suggested time zones weren’t adopted.

Instead, American and Canadian railroad officials chose time zones suggested by William F. Allen, editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide. Allen presented his idea at the General Time Convention of 1883. On October 11 of that year, they officially adopted the current Standard Time System. The new proposed time zones had borders running through railroad stations in major cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Charleston.

Once the railroad companies agreed on the new time zones, they selected a date to institute them and informed the public. Louisville, Kentucky’s The Courier-Journal ran a lengthy article concerning the time zones a few days beforehand.

U.S. #993 was issued to honor the role of railroad engineers in building America.
U.S. #993 was issued to honor the role of railroad engineers in building America.

According to that article, “the new system of uniform time will be put into effect by the leading railroad companies; and, instead of fifty different standards, there will be four corresponding to the four meridians adopted by the Chicago convention of railroad men. There is, indeed, a fifth standard meridian adopted, but, as it passes near St. Johns, New Brunswick, we are not concerned with it in the United States.” You can read the full article here.

The designated day was November 18, 1883, also known as The Day of Two Noons. On that day, the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh sent out a telegraph signal at exactly 12:00 noon on the 90th meridian. Then all the railroad clocks around the country reset their clocks to standard-time noon within their designated time zones. The time zones were named Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.

U.S. #1006 commemorates the 125th anniversary of granting of the charter to the B&O Railroad.
U.S. #1006 commemorates the 125th anniversary of granting of the charter to the B&O Railroad.

Though it was a big change for many Americans, within a year, about 85% of all U.S. cities with a population of over 10,000 (about 200 cities) had adopted the standard times. One city in particular had issues. Detroit (about halfway between the eastern and central time meridians) first decided to stick with local time. Then in 1900 they adopted Central Standard Time before trying local mean time and finally Eastern Standard Time in 1916.

U.S. #623 pictures Wilson’s favorite photo of himself.
U.S. #623 pictures Wilson’s favorite photo of himself.

Detroit wasn’t the only city in America to struggle with the new time zones. So to put an end to the confusion, Congress and President Woodrow Wilson passed the Standard Time Act in March 1918. This law authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission to establish America’s time zones and instituted Daylight Saving Time. (Daylight Saving Time was later repealed and then re-instituted during World War II).

Click here to see a 1913 time zone map and here to compare it to a modern map.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
[Total: 15 Average: 4.9]

Share this article

17 responses to "America Institutes First National Time Zones "

17 thoughts on “America Institutes First National Time Zones ”

    • Hear, hear!! I am with you Al. It is both confusing and unnecessary to go through the unnatural change of time when it is so artificial and inconvenient. Since the whole concept of time is a man made one, why not revert to the original intent?

      Reply
    • The president has more important things to worry about. That said, I wish they would leave daylight time all year long. Personally I love the “longer” days in the summer.

      Reply
  1. What a fascinating article. I learned so much about something I knew so little about, and the links are equally compelling. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. I would like to mention the contribution of Sir Sandford Fleming (the designer of Canada’s first postage stamp) to the concept of time zones. To quote Wikipdedia “After missing a train in 1876 in Ireland because its printed schedule listed p.m. instead of a.m., he proposed a single 24-hour clock for the entire world, located at the centre of the Earth, not linked to any surface meridian.[8] At a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute, on February 8, 1879, he linked it to the anti-meridian of Greenwich (now 180°). He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but they were subordinate to his single world time, which he called Cosmic Time. He continued to promote his system at major international conferences[9] including the International Meridian Conference of 1884. That conference accepted a different version of Universal Time but refused to accept his zones, stating that they were a local issue outside its purview. Nevertheless, by 1929, all major countries in the world had accepted time zones.”

    Thanks for these informative narratives. They are always enjoyable.

    Reply
  3. In the original layout, if you lived in the far eastern portion of the Pacific zone, your immediate neighbors to the east were 2 hours ahead of you in the Central zone. That must have been fun. Another interesting article and some great stamp examples.

    Reply
  4. Yes, but it was only the US military who recognized the need for the different time zones world wide and a 24 hour clock. Most of Europe and Asia use the 24 hour clock now (no AM/PM confusion) with 1 PM being 1300, 2 PM being 1400 etc. Natural time due to the earth’s relationship with the Sun results in about an hour’s difference with each 15 degrees of longitude, starting from GMT in England. So for the US, Guam and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, and American Samoa, they start our day that actually goes thru 6 time zones. It is the few counties of Indiana that always puzzle people near the time zone boundaries. Now we all operate off of the Atomic Clock in the Naval Observatory that is transmitted to GPS satellites and our mobile phones.

    Reply
  5. The Ayers clock at the corner of Meridian and Washington, Indianapolis, Indiana is being rebuilt. An angel appears on it the Friday after Thanksgiving. It is old, big and beautiful. The Star had a picture of a man sitting in it working. Needs its picture on a stamp.

    I gave up worrying about the time changes years ago.

    Reply
  6. A wonderful article. Thank you for the numerous history lessons presented by the articles. However, I agree with Al Atkins, that we drop this daylight to standard time switch twice yearly. Think if the wasted man hours in having to change all our clocks twice yearly in our homes and elsewhere. Thank you for the great informative articles.

    Reply
  7. Standard time for a given zone is (ignoring for now the complications of Daylight Savings Time) the MEAN solar time for the meridian chosen for that zone. “Mean” there has the sense of “average”” That qualification is needed because the rate of “apparent” solar time – the time shown on a sundial – varies throughout the year due to the changing speed of the earth in its orbit and the tilt of the sun’s axis.

    People will sometimes look at a sundial, compare it with their watch, and conclude that time measured by the sun is “wrong.” Not so! Two adjustments need to be made. The first is due to the difference in longitude between the sundial’s location and that of the standard meridian for the zone. The second accounts for the variation in apparent solar time throughout the year, the so-called “equation of time.” A good sundial ought to have this information posted with it, with the equation of time in the form of either a table or a graph showing the changes throughout a year.

    Reply
    • Thank you Mystic for another in a long series of interesting articles. Thank you to the scholars who came out today with their additional fascinating information and comments.

      Reply
  8. Another great and informing article. This explanation and understanding of time change across history is another fantastic update for everyone. Thank you, again, MYSTIC. I-L-O-V-E your articles … without your sharing of the facts behind USA stamps produced and WHY … I would have no idea about some but with your providing of the background information and explanation, I know and LEARN a LOT of very interesting stamp-production history. Please … keep it coming !! It is beneficial information and explanations.

    Reply
  9. Thank you Mr Richard Judge, Michael Toler, and George Murphy; for the additional information. Excellent!! What of the places, such as villages and small towns that happen to be on time zone that is one hour and ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes? Even one hour and one minute, two, three, etc. Also One hour and one second, two, three, etc. Example: I live in Western California. Nashville, Tennessee is two hours ahead of me. Moving easterly from Nashville, what towns, villages, and cities are two hours one minute, two, three, etc? Fascinating!! Sundials were the mode of time measure in ancient times. Among them were the Babylonians, Egyptians, and The Greeks.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Love history?

Discover events in American history – plus the stamps that make them come alive.

Subscribe to get This Day in History stories straight to your inbox every day!