March 19, 2013
Until 1918 each town in the United States set its clocks based on local solar time, but time became more important as railroads and telecommunications expanded and local time differences made schedules difficult.
Local solar time is differs by about four minutes for each degree of longitude (for example, clocks in New York and Boston would be about 8 minutes different), and in 1840, the Great Western Railroad in Great Britain began keeping Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as its standard time, using accurate chronometers on each train set to GMT; within a few years other railroads adopted the practice. In 1852, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, site of the prime meridian, began transmitting time signals over the telegraph to maintain accurate railway clocks. On Aug. 2, 1880, Britain adopted GMT as the country’s standard time.
Railroads in the U.S. adopted a standard time system devised by William F. Allen, editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide and secretary of the National Railway Time Convention, which used major railway terminals as the borderline between time zones, the border between Eastern and Central time zones ran through the railroad stations in Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Charleston, S.C.
On Nov. 18, 1883, the nations’ railroads implemented the system. The New York Times called the “Day of Two Noons,” and wrote: “The two large clocks in the window at the entrance to the Western Union Telegraph Company’s main office, in Broadway, one marked Chicago time and the other marked New York time, showed practically the change effected in the adoption of the new standards. The minute hands pointed to the same numerals on the faces, but the Chicago time hour hand indicated one hour earlier than did that of New York. … If one will bear in mind hereafter that in a correct clock or watch there will be no variation here or in England in the minute and second hands, there need be no trouble.”
Though the railroads adopted standard time, it was not until Mar. 19, 1918, that the United States officially adopted Standard Time and drew up time zones. The Standard Time Act of 1919 also instituted Daylight Savings Time (DST), which was widely adopted during World War I to save fuel. DST was not popular in the U.S. and Congress repealed it Aug. 20, 1919, overriding a veto from President Woodrow Wilson’s veto.
President Franklin Roosevelt instituted “War Time,” on Feb. 9, 1942, and daylight savings time was observed all year until the last Sunday of September 1945. There was no federal law on DST from 1945 until 1966, and many states adopted summertime DST. The confusion of local times caused the transportation industry to lobby for federal regulation of time, again. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 was enacted on April 13, and set a definition of DST, which would begin at 2:00 am, local time, on the last Sunday of April and end at 2:00 am on the last Sunday in October. DST was extended in 1986 (effective in 1987), and extended again in 2005.