Running on Railroad Time

railroad time

I was recently reading an excellent new book on the Battle of Waterloo* in which the author made an off-hand comment about the difficulty of synchronizing accounts even when sources give exact times for events because there was no standardized time.

Until the rise of the railroads in the mid-nineteenth century, time was essentially local. With the exception of the few points where public institutions intersected private schedules,** most people’s lives were measured by sun time rather than clock time.*** Clocks became more important with the industrial revolution and the growth of factories; whole communities found their lives regulated by the factory whistle. But even when two places used the same calendar,**** there was no way to synchronize their clock towers. More importantly, there was no reason to. The factory in No Place In Particular had no need to match its schedule to the factory in The Town Over The Hill.

That all changed with the railroads.

Railroads were born in Britain in 1825, using technologies developed in the British mining industry. The first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington, carried six hundred passengers over a twenty-six mile line in only four hours on its first trip. Over the next twenty years, investors formed more than six hundred rail companies that together laid more than ten thousand miles of track in Britain–transforming train travel from a novelty to a necessity. As rail travel became more common, differences in local time (sometimes as much as twenty minutes!) became a problem. In 1840, the Great Western Railroad instituted “railway time”. Other railroads soon followed. Some towns resisted bringing their public clocks into line with the railroad,***** but by 1880 all of Great Britain was using the same time standard, assuming everyone remembered to wind their watches.

The problems were bigger in the United States, where the distances involved and the potential time variations were greater and rugged individualism was the national pastime. By 1840, America had more miles of track than Great Britain. By 1860, it had more railroad track than the rest of the world combined–and was laying more. For the first time it was important for someone in Pittsburgh to know the exact time in Poughkeepsie, Peoria, and Pacific City. If local time differed too much from place to place, people missed trains, trains missed switches, produce rotted. At first, time was regulated on a railroad by railroad basis. Busy stations had to have a different clock for each railroad. It was confusing, It was messy. And it was dangerous.

In 1883, North American railroad officers finally adopted a plan for Standard Time, creating four zones in the United States and one in eastern Canada, based on mean sun times at set meridians from Greenwich, England. (Western Canada was apparently left to fend for itself in terms of time.) Despite some local opposition–the Indianapolis Sentinel complained that people would have to “eat,sleep, work…and marry by railroad time”(see *****)– Standard Time became the norm. The Standard Time Act of 1918 belatedly sanctioned existing practice. (I must admit, I wonder what problem required its passage. Was there a town somewhere that simply refused to reset its clocks?)

“Making the trains run on time” remains a synonym for efficiency, Amtrak not withstanding.

*David Crane’s Went The Day Well, one of a flood of new books on the subject because the bicentennial of the battle is nigh.
**Think the start of a Christian church service or the Muslim call to prayer. Both of which were publicly and loudly announced in the pre-modern world–church steeples and minarets served much the same function.
***At some gut level, we still run on sun time. Who doesn’t remember feeling outraged at the unfairness of being sent to bed while it was still light out on a summer evening? And don’t get me started on Daylight Savings Time.
****Not a given, as we’ve discussed before.
*****Someone is always ready to fight for the status quo, even if it means missing the train.

Image courtesy of ingfbruno, via Wikamedia Commons

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