Look at the time

Employees drill holes in watch plates at the National
Watch Company factory in Elgin, Illinois, 1917.
“Does anybody really know what time it is?”

So asked the Illinois-based rock band Chicago on their 1969 debut album. It’s a good question; one that had plagued travelers throughout the United States during the 19th century, and one which was finally answered after a conference in the band’s namesake city of Chicago.

Before we all had smartphones in our pockets to tell us the time down to the millisecond, before wristwatches, pocket watches and even clocks on the wall, people told the approximate time by the position of the sun. Decorative sundials are not an uncommon sight today, but two centuries ago they were the only method for telling time to any degree of accuracy.

This system was imprecise and totally ineffective on moonless nights or on especially cloudy days. It’s most serious shortcoming was that the “solar time” was different everywhere. “Solar noon” in Springfield; the point at which the sun was directly overhead; would be a few minutes later than solar noon in Champaign, but a few minutes earlier than in Quincy. It would be an altogether different time in Rockford or Peoria or Carbondale. At one point there were 27 different local times just in Illinois. Chicago’s time was determined by the observatory at the University of Chicago, which then informed City Hall.

Of course, until about a century-and-a-half ago this didn’t really matter, as there was no need for precise coordination of time between distant cities. That all changed with the coming of the railroads. It was proving extremely difficult to keep trains on time and coordinate their movements when every stop along the line had its own time. Something had to be done.

During the mid-1800s, different proposals emerged for deciding what time it was. In the United Kingdom, “railway time” had been introduced in the 1840s, with clocks synchronized to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (what we still know today as Greenwich Mean Time or GMT). But synchronizing time with one specific location often caused the “official” time to deviate greatly from the solar time. Some clocks were made with a pair of minute hands: one for GMT, one for local time.

The Western Clock Company in Peru, Illinois, 1917.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

In a nation which stretched thousands of miles from east coast to west coast; like the United States; synchronizing everyone to one standardized time was impractical. If the entire nation’s time was synchronized to Washington DC, the sun would rise in Los Angeles at 3 a.m. in the summer. Not only did individual towns have their own time, but individual railroads did too. To keep some sense of order, all trains belonging to certain railroads synchronized their clocks to the railroad’s main office. But not all main offices were in the same city, so different lines still had different times. Some stations had a series of clocks showing what time it was on each line.

The problems of this system were obvious. How would a passenger know if a train was on time? How could engineers be certain that the track ahead of them was clear? As railroads expanded across the country and train travel grew faster and more extensive, the system teetered on the edge of total chaos. In 1883, with problems ranging from mere inconvenience to actual danger of putting lives in jeopardy from unsynchronized trains using the same tracks, railroad executives from across the country got together at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago to try to standardize things.

The General Time Convention met on October 11, 1883, to solve the dilemma. Similar conferences had been meeting in Europe over the past few years to try to address the question there. The group’s secretary; William F. Allen, the editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide; had set forth a proposal to divide North America into five time zones, each roughly 15 degrees of longitude in width. Clocks in each zone would be synchronized, and crossing to the next zone to the east would move clocks forward exactly one hour, while moving one zone west would shift them back one hour. Eastern Canada would fall into what was then called the “intercolonial time zone,” while the zones in the United States would be named Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific.

The plan was adopted by the delegates to the convention, and went into effect on Sunday, November 18, 1883. That occasion came to be known as the “Day of Two Noons.” On a signal from the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, marking the moment of exact noon at the 90th degree of longitude, every clock in the Eastern time zone was synchronized. Clocks to the west were reset accordingly. The age of time zones had arrived in the United States.

The convenience of standard time was immediately clear, and it rapidly caught on. No longer did Americans travel across town only to find they were a few minutes early or a few minutes late (at least not because of discrepancies on the clock).

Passenger Train Crew, 1925. Photo from the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum
To keep these synchronized clocks accurate, railroads placed a high-quality clock in each station, which came to be known as the standard clock. A system of synchronizing was established with the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. The observatory would send out a pre-arranged code over the telegraph wires leading up to exact noon, thus allowing stationmasters to precisely adjust their clock if necessary. Railroad personnel were directed to synchronize their watches with the stationmaster at each stop. By the 1890s, railroads were working with watchmakers to develop a standard railroad watch for their employees to use in order to guarantee maximum synchronicity and safety. Watches were required to undergo regular inspections to ensure they were in good working condition.

However, the change was not so easy everywhere. Detroit in particular had difficulties, as it was located on the western edge of the Eastern time zone, meaning it’s official time had one of the largest deviations from its solar time. The city declined to participate in the standardization until 1900, but then set its clocks to Central time instead, finally moving to Eastern time in 1916. A system of standardized nautical time for ships at sea was not agreed upon until 1920.

Part of the issue in the early years was that compliance with time standardization was completely voluntary. For over 30 years after the convention, this standardization of time continued entirely through the influence of railroads and its popularity among average citizens. While some local governments adopted ordinances standardizing time within their jurisdictions, Congress did not act to enshrine standardized time into law nationwide until 1918, the same point at which it created daylight saving time.

The system continued to evolve over the next century. From pocket watches and telegraphs to satellites and computers, railroad and then airline timekeeping has become ever more precise.

The time zone map has undergone adjustments too. While the entire state of Illinois has been within the Central time zone from its inception, other states have sought to adjust time zone boundaries to keep their adjacent areas standard with nearby major cities. In 1972 Indiana switched some of its northwestern counties to the Central time zone in order to stay synchronized with Chicago, part of a contentious century-long debate over time zones in the Hoosier State.

Today, we think nothing of time differences between American cities. East coast-based television networks tell us our favorite show will be on at “eight, seven central.” Westbound flights sometimes land earlier than the time they took off. We get used to staying up late to watch our favorite teams play on the west coast. It all came about from a group of railroad executives who sat down in a hotel in Chicago determined to answer that question: does anybody really know what time it is?