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The Story of How Railroads (Not Government) Created Time Zones

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 28, 2023 3:01 am

The Story of How Railroads (Not Government) Created Time Zones

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 28, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, China runs on just a single time zone; in America, we have four: Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern, but we used to have thousands!

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They're some of our favorites. Up next, here's Greg Hengler with a story of how time zones came to America. What time is it?

It's a seemingly easy question, but depending on what time zone you live in, your time will be different. The development and spread of the railroads across the United States in the 1800s brought a wave of changes to American life. It's a heroic chapter in American history, but the most interesting transformation is least known. Each town in the United States had its own time, depending on when the noonday sun was directly overhead.

Here's American popular science author, Steven Johnson. So you know what it's like taking a train ride today. You can kick back, read a book, listen to some music, but imagine what it would have been like in 1870, trying to take a train. Let's say we're traveling from New Haven to New York. And so I get on the train at 12 o'clock, New Haven time. And it takes us two hours to get to New York. So we should be arriving in New York at two o'clock.

But in fact, in New York time, that's technically 1.55. But the train we're on is actually running on Boston time. So that means we're actually pulling into the station in New York on Boston time at 2.17. But then we're like making a connection to a train to Baltimore that's running on Baltimore time. So that train is actually leaving the station.

Leaving the station at 2.07, which seems to be in the past. I mean, you have to be a math major to figure out what time it is. So how did the nation settle on uniform time zones?

Some may think that the government brought order out of this chaos. But this was not the case. It was the railroads that spearheaded the move to a time zone system because the varying times in different towns created hazards for traveling trains. A miscalculation of one minute could mean a collision. As the Foundation for Economic Education president Lawrence Reed noted, East-West travel was rough. Predicting the time a train would arrive at any particular stop was no small feat in the days before standard time. Fearing government intervention, railroad managers commissioned transportation publisher William Frederick Allen to devise a simple plan. He proposed four time zones divided vertically 15 degrees apart by lines called meridians. Those meridians came close to hitting the cities of Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, and Fresno. In October of 1883, a general time convention held in Chicago set up by various railroads approved of noon November 18th, 1883 as the date when railroad time would replace local time.

The railroads didn't bother with legislation or with Congress. Here's historian Michael O'Malley, author of Keeping Watch, a history of American time. They just say we're doing it and you can get on board. They call it the day of two noons, that's the nickname. The railroad announced it's a Sunday, that at noon on this day, November 18th, they're just going to stop all operations. Wherever the train is, it's just going to stop and it's going to wait however long it takes to catch up with what the new standard time will be. And in cities, any city that agrees to go along with it, and most of them do, they stop the clocks or they suddenly move them ahead. And in major cities in America, people get wind of this and they gather around the clocks wondering sort of anxiously what's going to happen. You know, it's a puzzling thing. There's, you know, jokes that if you slip on a banana peel at the right moment, you'll take 15 minutes to fall.

And then it happens, you know, and the people look at each other and they shrug and nothing much happens. Since these new time zones were a private undertaking, they had no force of law. Only railroad employees had to obey the new times. But in fact, people began to set their watches by railroad time and the change was widely accepted. Some government officials were apparently annoyed that such a change could take place without their playing any serious role.

According to H. Stewart Holbrook, in the story of American Railroads, the traveling public and shipper too quickly fell in with the new time belt plan and naturally found it good. But Uncle Sam wasn't ready to admit the change was beneficial. A few days before November 18th, the Attorney General of the United States issued an order that no government department had a right to adopt railroad time until authorized by Congress. So when did Congress authorize the change?

35 years later, on March 19th, 1918, during World War I. At this point, Congress passed the Standard Time Act and made official what everyone else had put into practice. Time zones were now legally part of American life.

Here again is Michael O'Malley. What Standard Time did is it changed the nature of community. Before Standard Time, the time of day was what the local sun was doing and it was noon in your valley.

You know, on the other side of the mountain, it was not quite noon yet. But Standard Time, if everybody adopted it, put people in new forms of relationship to each other. So after 1883, from Portland, Maine to Atlanta, everybody's on Eastern Time.

Eight o'clock in the morning means eight o'clock in the morning, regardless of what the sun is doing. If you think of North-South as being one of the great divides of American life, this obliterates North-South and it makes North and South the same all along the Eastern seaboard. Whereas before, North and South were very different. It makes East and West a more meaningful difference. And it unites a whole Western region from Texas up to Minnesota in a single time. So it does rearrange the kind of priorities for community. Today, let's celebrate time zones by remembering the constitutional role of government to enforce laws and provide national defense. Beyond that, a free people can create solutions to a multitude of problems.

They did so in 1883 when they created time zones. I'm Greg Hengler, and this is Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. I'm Jonathan Strickland, host of the podcast Tech Stuff. I sat down with Sunun Shahani of Surf Air Mobility, which recently went public. We talked about flying in electric planes and regional air mobility. The future of travel doesn't have to include crowded airports, cramped seats, or long road trips. It can be as simple as using an app to book a short-range flight on an electric plane. Learn more on Tech Stuff on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones.

Dive in deeper at forward slash iHeart. ABC Tonight. The Bachelor is entering its golden era with the premiere of The Golden Bachelor. For the first time in The Bachelor franchise history, 72-year-old Gary Turner is setting out to prove it's never too late to fall in love again. Millions are swooning over The Golden Bachelor. The LA Times raves, the series is a love story years in the making. Glamour Magazine exclaims, there's no expiration date on romance. This is must-see TV. The Golden Bachelor premieres tonight on ABC and stream next day on Hulu.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-28 04:41:28 / 2023-09-28 04:45:47 / 4

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