What Time Is It? cover

What Time Is It?

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Daylight saving time takes a bit of adjustment every year. How did it get started?
Library Of Congress Blog





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What Time Is It?

With the recent “fall back” of daylight saving time, we had to reset our clocks and maybe our brains to get used to the change. And, if you’re someone that conducts business in different time zones, that adjustment can take additional getting used to.

I know I always have trouble remembering how far ahead or behind other places are in reference to my location, despite having essentially lived at one time or another in all four time zones.

Standard time zones of the world, January 2015. Geography and Map Division.

The idea of time zones was actually introduced on Nov. 18, 1883, by North American railroads in an effort to better coordinate train schedules. Standard Railway Time ushered in ordinances enacted by many American cities, which then gave rise to the creation of time “zones.”

Before clocks, people marked time by the sun and the phases of the moon. With the development of the railway and the invention of the telegraph, accurate time became more important. Prior to adopting SRT, trains traveling east or west between towns had a difficult time maintaining coherent schedules and smooth operations.

The four standard time zones quickly adopted nationwide were Eastern Standard Time, Central daylight Time, Mountain Standard Time and Pacific Daylight Time. They were each one-hour wide due to the fact that 15 degrees of longitude corresponds to a one-hour difference in solar time.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, June 1, 2015. Prints and Photographs Division.

While time zones may have been established with the railroads, the idea of standardized time had been discussed long before. In 1875, Cleveland Abbe – astronomer, meteorologist, and the first head of the U.S. Weather Bureau – lobbied the American Meteorological Society (AMS) to take action on a uniform standard time. You can read more about the history of times zones in this Today in History entry.

Burlington Route. 1892. Geography and Map Division.

As one can imagine, there was some confusion, due to the border of the time zones running through major cities.

For example, the border between its Eastern and Central time zones ran through Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Charleston.

However, Detroit kept local time until 1900, then tried Central Standard Time, local mean time and Eastern Standard Time. The confusion of times came to an end when Standard zone time was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918.