How times have changed


April 13, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It's about time.

If you're still a little sleepy in the morning and it's dark outside, there's a reason for that.

Last weekend, the nation - well most of the nation, with the exception of Hawaii, Indiana and Arizona - switched to daylight-saving time.

But take heart, that lost hour will return, even though you're going to have to mark time until the last Sunday in October when it's restored.

Since 1986, when Congress passed a law establishing the beginning of daylight-saving time, clocks are to be set ahead one hour at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday in April. Daylight time ends at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October.

While states can opt to remain on standard time throughout the year or switch to daylight-saving time, the standardization of time is a fairly recent phenomenon.

At one time, chaos and lack of uniformity in timekeeping reigned from coast to coast; for railroads this was particularly troublesome. Until 1883, time was something that fell under the administration of local jurisdictions - sun time - and was determined by the position of the sun at noon.

As incredible as it may seem, many towns relied upon sundials to mark time. Because of the curvature of the Earth, solar noon is one minute later for every 12 miles as one moves westward. It was not uncommon for 19th-century travelers aboard trains to cross 50 times zones in a day. A trip of 500 miles could conceivably have a traveler re-setting his pocket watch 30 times.

For instance, clocks in New York City were 1 minute, 1 second behind Albany, but 10 minutes and 27 seconds ahead of Baltimore. Time in Hagerstown some 80 miles west of Baltimore, was different. Theoretically, clocks there should have been behind Baltimore, but they were ahead by six minutes because they observed Philadelphia time.

"In every city and town the multiplicity of time standard confused and bewildered passengers, shippers and railway employees. [T]oo often errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision," wrote Stewart H. Holbrook in his 1947 book, The Story of American Railroads.

Clearly something had to be done.

In 1848, England adopted a uniform system of time based on the longitudinal meridian at the observatory in Greenwich, England.

"To compensate for a lack of a uniform system in North America the railroads initiated their own time standards based on the local time of their principal cities. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, for example, used Baltimore time for its eastern connections, Columbus time for trains in Ohio, and Vincennes [Ind.] times for its tracks west of Cincinnati," wrote Shawn M. Herne in his 1999 book, The Railroad Timekeeper.

"It also used New York time, Philadelphia time, and Chicago time for trains operating out of these primary cities. Railroad officials determined these times and transmitted them to all points along the line via telegraph," he wrote.

In 1869, Charles F. Dowd, a member of the faculty of the Temple Grove Seminary for Young Ladies in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., advanced the idea of a system of uniform railroad time zones. His plan allowed local jurisdictions to hold onto their sun time while railroads would be operated in accordance with a universal time. In 1870, he revised his plan and suggested four time zones centering on the Washington meridian.

In rejecting the plan in 1873, the Railway Association of America said the "disadvantages the system seeks to avoid are not of such serious consequences as to call for any immediate action on the part of railroad companies."

In 1872, William F. Allen, former resident engineer of the Camden & Amboy Railroad, and a group of other railroaders established the General Time Convention, and 10 years later announced their plan, which seized on some of Dowd's ideas, including the creation of five geographic time zones -Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific - based on the Greenwich longitudinal system.

Public clamor for better railroad safety brought about the acceptance of Railroad Standard Time, which went into effect on Nov. 18, 1883. That day, some cities experienced two noons. With the implementation of standard time, Baltimoreans forever lost 6 minutes and 28 seconds out of their lives. When noon arrived, a cranky "Big Sam," the City Hall tower clock, had trouble striking. Not about to lose the significance of the historic moment, a worker picked up a sledge hammer and continued the tolling.

But the new time wasn't universally accepted.

Editorial writers fussed and fumed. "The sun is no longer boss of the job. People - 55,000,000 of them - must eat, sleep and work as well as travel by railroad time," said the Indianapolis Sentinel.

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