Compass

Nov. 18, 1883: U.S. first adopts standard time zones

Compass

(Henry Ford Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

We take time zones for granted, but until the 19th century, clock times were very local and based on the sun’s position in the sky in any given place. Thus, New York City time was a few minutes different from Buffalo time, but nobody minded much.

It was travel that made standardized time zones necessary — specifically train travel. Everyone needed to know when a train would be at a station, but if clocks were different in every town, that was impossible. England was the first to adopt a nationwide “Railway Time,” but it was fairly easy to figure that out for one small country. What do you do with a vast nation like the U.S.?

Before the 1880s, each American railway line had its own standardized time system. If you didn’t know that line’s system, you were out of luck. That changed when railways agreed to use a time zone system proposed by William F. Allen, the editor of the “Traveler's Official Railway Guide.” At noon on Nov. 18, 1883 (sometimes called the “day of two noons”), almost every station became part of a “time zone” inside which everyone used the same time.

Early on, the four time zones’ borders were very different from where they are now, with an enormous central time zone (as in the photo above). In 1918, Congress approved a time zone map much like the one we know today, although minor changes still happen.

While a worldwide system of 24 time zones was originally proposed as early as 1879, it took 50 years for one to be adopted almost everywhere — just in time for the advent of international commercial air travel.

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