On Time National Museum of American History

Marking Time
Synchronizing Time
  Alarm Clock Blues
  Time Discipline
  Time Zones
Local Time
Standard Time
World Standard Time
Daylight Saving Time
  Time Machines

Time Zones

Double-time pocket watch
  Double-time pocket watch, about 1850; English; could keep local time and railroad time simultaneously
Local Time
Before 1883, towns across the nation set their own times by observing the position of the sun, so there were hundreds of local times. Instead of Eastern Standard Time, for example, there was Philadelphia Standard Time or Charleston Standard Time. In the 1850s, railroads began to operate under about fifty regional times, each set to an agreed-upon, arbitrary standard time. Rail companies often induced a region to abandon local time in favor of the railroad’s operating time.
Philadelphia Standard Time regulator
Charleston Standard Time regulator
Philadelphia Standard Time regulator, ordered in 1874; by E. Howard & Co., Boston; used at Philadelphia Gold & Stock Telegraph Co.
Gift of Western Union Corporation
  Charleston Standard Time regulator, about 1855; by E. Howard & Co., Boston; used at James Allan & Co. jewelry store in Charleston, South Carolina
Gift of Richard H. Allan Jr., Elizabeth H. Allan, Mary Ann Allan, and Eleanor Hanson

Standard Time
The nation's railroads operated under about fifty regional times. In 1881, fearing government intervention, railroad managers commissioned transportation publisher William Frederick Allen to devise a simpler plan. He proposed five time zones. The time in each zone was determined by the time at the central meridian within each zone. Each central meridian was fifteen degrees of longitude-one hour-apart. Allen launched a successful campaign to persuade railroads, businesses, journalists, politicians, and average citizens to support his plan.

On November 18, 1883, at noon on the seventy-fifth meridian west of Greenwich, England—roughly four minutes after local noon in New York City—Standard Railway Time went into effect. Most railroads and communities switched to standard time, experiencing two noons—noon by local time and by standard time. Some people resented standard time. To them it represented a loss of local autonomy or a disregard for the authority of God and nature. Others, especially at the boundaries of each zone, objected to the noticeable aberration from sun time.

Travelers’ Official Guide
Travelers’ Official Guide, December 1883
Travelers’ Official Guide, December 1882 (before Standard Time); by Allen’s National Railway Publication Co., New York, New York
Gift of National Railway Company
  Travelers’ Official Guide, December 1883 (after Standard Time); by Allen’s National Railway Publication Co., New York, New York
Gift of National Railway Company
  Watch, about 1880; custom-made for Sandford Fleming by Nicole, Nielsen & Co. for E. White, London
World Standard Time
Sandford Fleming, chief engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, was the first to publish a scheme for worldwide time zones in 1876. He carried a custom-made pocket watch reflecting his system for dividing the globe into twenty-four zones identified by letters of the alphabet. In 1884, delegates to the International Meridian Conference recommended that the globe be divided into twenty-four zones, one hour apart. Nations of the world gradually adopted the coordinated time system.
Poster, about 1918; promoting Daylight Saving Time
Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana
Daylight Saving Time
The federal government first officially recognized standard time during World War I, in an act to establish Daylight Saving Time. At war's end, Congress repealed Daylight Saving Time in response to farmers more in sync with the sun than the clock. During World War II, Congress authorized a temporary year-round daylight saving time, dubbed "War Time." No national legislation provided for Daylight Saving Time until the Uniform Time Act of 1966.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History