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Montana Viewpoint

Putting time in perspective

 

November 14, 2019



Of all the petty annoyances in life, few things seem to set people to fuming and fussing more than having to adjust their lives to the change from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time and vice-versa. Imagine, then, how people felt in 1883 when cities and small towns, each of which had its own time system, were forced to set their local times to a national standard. But it wasn’t government that forced the change on this most fundamental example of local control, it was the railroads which made them do it.

Prior to 1883 there were no time zones and localities were content to set their local time “by the sun.” When the sun was straight overhead, that was noon, by golly, and because noon came at different times for different places there was a patchwork of times that people had to contend with. That is, in Podunk Center, Iowa (yes, there is such a place), the time might differ by five minutes from a neighboring town. This was manageable when the primary modes of transportation were by foot, horse, or boat and a journey of five miles was a major event for many rural people; but when the railroads became the major means of transportation longer journeys became possible and moving between (and through) local time zones became more common and more difficult. While it may have been an inconvenience to the traveler, to the railroads it could lead to serious accidents when trains met on the same track at the same time, but hypothetically at different times according to the railroads’ train schedules.

If you were a traveler in 1869, for instance, you might consult the train schedules compiled in the Guide to the Railways of the United States to find the departure or arrival times of a train to discover the following notes. On the Illinois Central Railroad timetable for the trains between Dubuque, Iowa, and Cairo, Illinois, “Standard of Time —From Dunlieth to Wapella, Amboy time; from Wapella to Cairo, Centralia time.” Or, on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, “Standard of Time — 12 minutes slower than Cincinnati time;” and, as a final example, the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railway “Standard of Time — Clock in Superintendent’s office at Indianapolis, 19 minutes faster than St. Louis time.”

If the same railroad took you all the way to your destination there was no problem, but if you had to make a connection on a different railroad you needed to know what standard of time it ran on because it was common for trains of different railroads to arrive in the same city at the same time but at different times, if you get the meaning.

On November 18, 1883, American railroads formally instituted a system of time zones that are similar to those in use today. The railroads took the initiative for several reasons, but one was to get the jump on the federal government which they felt would screw things up. While most local governments and railroad travelers welcomed the standardization, it was not universally loved with some citizens arguing that this went against “nature’s law.” And not all cities were happy with the decision; Detroit operated on a time 28 minutes slower than Central Time until 1905. It took 35 years before Standard Time became the national standard with Congressional passage of The Standard Time Act of 1918, which also included a Daylight Saving Time, although it was so unpopular it was repealed the following year.

It seems that Americans object more to having to “lose” an hour when Daylight Saving Time goes into effect, even though it lengthens the evenings. But when time zones are changed at the request of local governments it almost always occurs on the western boundary of the time zone, thus making evenings an hour longer.

Not all countries have different time zones within their boundaries. For some it’s because they are small enough to fit within an established zone, but then there’s China which operates across all 3,000 miles of its territory on Beijing time because Chairman Mao thought it was a unifying factor.

No matter how much we may dislike having to change our clocks; consider how the people of colonial America felt when the Julian calendar was replaced with the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1752 and people lost, not just an hour, but 11 days of their lives. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.

 

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