By: Scott RossPublished: November 18, 2022

William F. Allen

Time zones in America were for decades a messy quilt subject to the vagaries of the human frailties. High noon was often when the sun was at its highest point over city hall, which meant the time for two people just a few miles apart might vary by just a few minutes (which, sure, technically it should, but c'mon...). In addition to one's local time, there was railroad, because of course a railroad needs to have a firm grasp on its time, what with schedules and all. Things were so bad that if you were at a train station and asked someone the time, they might reasonably give you multiple answers, as there were hundreds of local times and dozens of railroad times. This was obviously an idiotic situation that could not stand.

In 1874, an astronomer named Cleveland Abbe was trying to coordinate the observations by 100 volunteers of the aurora borealis, but the data they sent him was ultimately useless because he had no idea exactly when things were happening. He wrote a letter the following year to the American Meteorological Society demanding action and they in turn formed a Committee on Standard Time, and named Abbe as chairman. By 1879 they'd issued a report of their findings, and proposed a maximum of five time zones indexed to Greenwich Mean Time.

William F. Allen was the secretary of a railroad trade association, the General Time Convention, who became aware of Abbe's efforts and began to consider the unmitigated disaster that could be wrought were the federal government to step in and fix the problem, so he set about determining his own solution.

Allen eventually proposed whittling the US and Canada down to just five time zones, the Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific, set 15 degrees apart, with the boundaries running through train stations. What made Allen's plan especially palatable to the railroads was that they wouldn't necessitate a reprinting of schedules, just a resetting of clocks.

And so, on November 18, 1883, engineers and conductors across the country pulled out their timepieces and watched as the final minutes before noon ticked away, at which point a signal from the Allegheny Observatory at the University of Pittsburgh, the official timekeeper for many railroads, signal via telegraph the exact time for each newly minted time zone. There were a few stragglers and rebels, notably in Detroit, but by 1918, Congress passed the Standard Time Act, thus putting an end to such foolishness.


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