When the Standardization of Time Arrived in America

It used to be that each town kept its own time, and chaos reigned

iStock / PhotosbyAndy

This story is from the Smithsonian’s new podcast, Sidedoor. Listen to the episode “Tech Yourself” below (scroll to 13:35 in the player) and subscribe here for future episodes.

It’s the 19th Century. You have no phone, no watch, but what you do have is a very pressing appointment at noon, how do you tell what time it is? In the 1800s, the three main sources of determining the time were the clock at the center of your town, the railroads, and the sun, but it would not be uncommon for all three to tell you different times. Every city or town had the ability to set its own time so 1:05 PM in your town could be 1:15 the next town over. Railroads operated on their own set of timetables and not always the same ones. Two trains on the same track could have two different times, which meant unsafe traveling conditions and collisions. 

On November 18, 1883, the railroads of North America set a standard time for all trains to address the danger. Industrial America grew around the railroad time system. Factories operated on this standard time, developing punch clocks to monitor and schedule work. Time became more regulated, managed to the second at the hands of technology and the clocks that set it. The shift from an almost indeterminable time to the micromanagement we experience today happened gradually. At first, towns would have their local time and their railroad time. One bartender who claimed to adhere to solar time kept his bar open past 11 p.m. (which was illegal at the time). When he was questioned about breaking the law, he stated that he had 6 minutes to close the bar according to the time that he followed. The court did not agree. Slowly, however, more and more cities abandoned their local time and followed the standard time set by the railroad system. Thirty-five years after the railroad announced its time system, the federal government began to enforce a standard time throughout all of the United States.  

Carlene Stephens, the curator who researches the cultural history of time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History believes that, “The concept of time is something I think we as humans have invented and the idea of synchrony is almost as powerful as this whole business of existing in time.”

Time is a reflection of human society, like the technology we invented to determine it. A clock does not only tell you the time now, but its ticks are an echo of the past and the evolution of how we understand time and technology is what propels us into the future. 

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