Today, we talk about railways, clocks, and
individualism. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Have you ever wondered how
-- when the wagons moved west -- the settlers set
their watches after they got to Sleepy Snake,
Nevada? They didn't have TV or radios. What did
they use? And how did their watches compare when
they met their neighbors from Broken Axle, Utah?
Watches in Sleepy Snake simply didn't match the
ones in Broken Axle. For that matter, the clocks in
Philadelphia didn't match the ones in New Haven,
either. When we started building railroads in the
1830s, something had to be done about time. Outside
the station, trains ran both ways on a single
track. Northbound trains had to know when to expect
So the railroads became law unto themselves as far
as time was concerned. At first railroad personnel
agreed on time as best they could. But something
better was needed, and the new telegraph systems
provided the means. In 1851 a director of the
Harvard Observatory developed a system for
telegraphing time to the railroads.
And this, in turn, raised another question: "Whose
time should be given out?" Sailors the world over
agreed on Greenwich Meridian time. But American
nationalism didn't permit that on dry land.
Instead, the railroads adopted a set of time
standards -- each one tied to a different city --
and they became the public standard. We eventually
reached a kind of time Babel. By 1879 we set our
clocks by 75 different railroad standard times.
Objective voices in general, and scientists in
particular, begged for a uniform national standard.
In 1885 the railroads finally agreed to standardize
on common time zones. That March, they all adjusted
their clocks a few minutes -- one way or the other
-- to fit into one of four zones. But the clocks
around them didn't change. The railroads were
powerful, and the public deeply distrusted them. We
wouldn't buy into the railroad standard until 1918.
And after that, railroad independence remained.
From 1920 to 1967 the railways wouldn't acknowledge
daylight saving time.
All the tools for setting up time-standards were in
hand by 1850. But in 1850 Sacramento and Hartford
might as well have been on different planets. We
didn't feel much need for a standard. After all,
individualism is too precious to give up just
because technology says it's sensible to do so. We
don't accept a standard -- we don't abdicate
individualism -- until necessity forces it. And
that's really the way things should be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds