On Time Zones & Communication

Last week, I mentioned that time zones were an artifact of the rail system, because coordinating clocks is important when trains share tracks or when passengers need to plan to catch a train at a local station.

Someone asked – so what did people do before time zones? My guess — off the top of my head — was that time was set locally and according to the sun (“high noon”).

That guess was pretty accurate.

How America Got Time Zones

Before the need for coordinated time, cities set their clocks by the position of the sun. And although noon is the time when the sun is highest in the sky, even towns close to one another would have slight variations in time, especially if they were not on a north-south meridian. But with no need to coordinate activities across large distances, this variation caused no social or economic hardship.

According to Eviatar Zerubavel (1982), in 1784, Britain began scheduling its mail coaches, which meant that the British Post Office needed to coordinate time across many localities. It did so by requiring mail coaches to conform to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), because “the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was the most reliable observatory in Britain.”

Nevertheless, local time remained the norm for most people in Britain until the middle 1800s, when the development of a national communication network brought with it a need for coordination.

Railroad Time
Britain, which was the western world’s economic and technological leader in the 1800s, was the first nation to establish standard time zones (Zerubavel). A time zone is a geographic area that has a uniform time set by man, not by the sun.

Brian Winston’s (1998) “supervening necessity” that spawned time zones was travel by rail. The year was 1840, and by 1847, almost all of Britain’s railways ran on London Time. In 1880, the legal system followed suit when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act went into effect (IDEA, 2008).

In America, the telegraph allowed observatories to coordinate time between two distant locations. In the 1850s, some observatories began using the telegraph to provide “time services” to local communities. However, most communities stuck by the sun; there may have been as many as 8,000 time conventions in the U.S. in the 1870s. A U.S. Senate report from 1882 concluded “it would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time as it would be to introduce among them a novel system of weights, measures, volumes and money” (White, 2005).

Despite America’s demonstrated reluctance to coordinate time, on 18 November 1883, railroads in both Canada and the United States implemented four time zones in order to standardize their schedules and avoid wrecks (History.com, 2008; White, 2005). Not only was this more than 40 years after a similar system went into effect in Britain, it was more than 70 years after a similar idea was proposed to Congress! In 1809, William Lambert, an amateur astronomer, recommended Congress establish time meridians (Townsend, 1874, p. 565). In 1870, Charles Dowd proposed that Congress establish four time zones (Time zone, 2009).

Although schedules and wreck-avoidance seem important for efficiency, what might have pushed the railroads to finally act? William F. Allen, who headed a trade association of railroad managers, began lobbying for railroads to take the initiative in standardizing time in 1881. Connecticut passed a law making New York City time the state standard; in 1883, Allen cited the Connecticut example when he warned that railroads should not “entrust” standardizing time to “the infinite wisdom of the several State legislatures” (White, 2005). In other words, Allen argued that railroads should control their own destiny and develop a standard — a system of time — that fit their needs.

The railroad innovation spread rapidly throughout the country, probably the result of network effects and in contrast to the gloomy expectations of the U.S. Senate. According to Zerubavel, “Of the 100 principal cities in the United States [in 1883], 70 adopted Standard Railway Time immediately. By the following October, 85 percent of all American towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants had adopted Standard Railway Time.”

As in Britain, U.S. law followed (not led) social norms. Standard time zones were not established in the U.S. until the Standard Time Act of 1918, which was really about Daylight Saving Time. Congress adopted the railroad time zones and delegated authority for regulation to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). In 1966, Congress transferred that authority to the Department of Transportation.

Daylight Saving Time
Any discussion of time would be incomplete without acknowledging Daylight Saving Time, the act of moving clocks an hour “forward” during sunnier months. The result is that afternoons have more natural sunlight and mornings less.

Daylight Saving Time was controversial in inception and remains controversial today. Few people realize that it is rooted in World War I and the early days of electrification.

LOC Image Via Wikipedia

Germany and Austria implemented Daylight Saving Time on 30 April 1916, as one way to conserve electricity. City-wide electrical generation was in its infancy (Bellis, 2009).

This was during World War I, and other involved countries jumped on the bandwagon: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Manitoba, Netherlands, Norway, Nova Scotia, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, and Tasmania. In 1917, Australia and Newfoundland implemented Daylight Saving Time (IDEA, 2008).

In 1917 the U.S. entered the war, and the U.S. Congress passed a concurrent resolution in March 1918 “to save daylight and to provide standard time.” The U.S. law was repealed the following year, when WWI was over. Then in 1942 (World War II), the U.S. Congress instituted daylight savings time once again; this continued until the war was over in 1945 (IDEA, 2008).

Thus, in the U.S., Daylight Saving Time was associated with conservation and a war effort.

With states and localities free to choose whether or not to implement Daylight Saving Time, “radio and TV stations and the transportation companies had to publish new schedules every time a state or town began or ended Daylight Saving Time” (IDEA, 2008). And yet the ICC did not step in to help smooth the waters of commerce.

This hands-off policy meant that by 1966, more than half of all Americans observed some form of Daylight Saving Time, but the form was based on their local laws and customs (Zerubavel). To bring order (standardization), Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Uniform Time Act of 1966. This law stipulated that Daylight Saving Time would begin on the last Sunday of April (“spring forward!”) and end on the last Sunday of October (“fall back!”).

But there was an “out” — a state could opt out of the system if a legislature and governor agreed (passed a law). Arizona and Hawaii are the only states to opt out (Rosenberg, 2008).

In response to the energy crisis resulting from a major jump in gasoline prices, for two years Daylight Saving Time in the U.S. was extended. On 4 January 1974, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Emergency Daylight Savings Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973. Two days later, Americans moved their clocks ahead one hour. On 5 October 1974, Congress amended the Act, and Americans moved their clocks back an hour on 27 October. The following year, Daylight Saving Time extended from 23 February 1975 to 26 October (Aldrich, 2007).

The next change in Daylight Saving Time came in 1986, when Congress extended the period. Clocks were moved forward on the first Sunday of April and back on the last Sunday of October (Aldrich, 2007).

The most recent change in the U.S. occurred in 2007. Today Daylight Saving Time extends from the first Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November (Aldrich, 2007).

In most of Europe, Daylight Saving Time extends from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October (IDEA, 2008).

There you have it! Standardized time – a fact of modern life that we take for granted, has its roots in the early days of electrified communications.


Aldrich, B. (2007). Saving time, saving energy. The California Energy Commission. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://www.energy.ca.gov/daylightsaving.html

Bellis, M. (2009). Electricity milestones. About.com: Inventors. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blelectric2.htm

History.com. (2008). November 18, 1883. This Day In History. A&E Television Networks. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=4341

Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement (IDEA). (2008). Daylight Saving Time. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/.

Rosenberg, M. (2008, September 22). Daylight Saving Time. About.com: Geography. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://geography.about.com/cs/daylightsavings/a/dst.htm

Time zone. (2009, January 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Time_zone&oldid=265608293

Townsend, G. A. (1874). Washington, Outside and Inside. J. Betts & Co. Retrieved 25 January 2009, from GoogleBooks.

White, M.W. (March 2005). The economics of time zones. Unpublished paper, Wharton School, University of PennsylvaniaRetrieved 25 January 2009, from http://bpp.wharton.upenn.edu/mawhite/Papers/TimeZones.pdf

Winston, B. (1998). Media, Technology and Society, A History: From The Telegraph To The Internet. Routledge, London.

Zerubavel, E. (July 1982). The standardization of time: a sociohistorical perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 88(1). Retrieved 25 January 2009, from JSTOR, DOI: 10.1086/227631.

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  • Dee Buckingham  On 26 January 2009 at 11:37 am

    I have a blog watch for World War II Hawaii, and yours popped. On March 4, 2009, the following is scheduled to be posted on my blog (www.WomenOfWorldWarIIHawaii.com) the image is of a sailor reading the paper in the atrium of the Hawaii State Library.

    Thanks for the info on your site.
    Dee Buckingham

    What Hawaiian Time?
    The only time Hawaii observed Daylight Saving Time was during World War II when President Roosevelt instituted a Federal year-round Daylight Saving Time. It was called “War Time” and was in place from February 2, 1942 to September 30, 1945. After the war, Hawaii went back to Hawaiian Standard Time.

    From 1945 to 1966, there was no federal law about Daylight Saving Time. After the war, each state and some municipalities chose whether or not to observe Daylight Saving Time. Not only that, each could decide when it began and ended.

    You can imagine the confusion this caused. Think about the railroad schedules–different times for different dates for different states. And, what about the radio schedules and the burgeoning airline industry?

    Hawaii happily went back to (and still operates on) Hawaiian Standard Time which is six hours behind Eastern Standard Time (which is five hours behind Eastern Daylight Savings Time).

    Then of course there is “Hawaiian Time” which is—-whenevah!

    PHOTO: This photo is taken at the Hawaii State Library atrium.

    Women of World War II Hawaii

  • Mattso  On 27 January 2009 at 6:45 pm

    So, for our purposes do we consider time zone regulation a technology?

  • kegill  On 27 January 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Hi, Matt – time zone would be a technology (well, time is really the technology) – but not the regulation.

  • Harry Hayward  On 27 January 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Interesting how wars have had an impact on lots of the historical innovations in communication! The telegraph was used in Europe and during the American Civil War to discuss troop movements, Al Qeda is often referred to as mobilizing by cell/sattelite phone. And here we have everyone messing around with time to save electricity!

  • michael bean  On 27 January 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Crazy to think that things were so haphazardly organized as of just 40 years ago. Time just seems like something thats so taken for granted now that everythings digitized, but it’s really a remarkably complex phenomenon. Interesting read.

  • peterlux  On 27 January 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Question: Why is Indiana in two time zones?

    Comment: Daylight Saving Time’s was the previous administration pretense of caring about saving energy, but unfortunately it’s very unclear that moving Daylight Saving this early saves any energy at all: http://www.ucei.berkeley.edu/PDF/csemwp163.pdf

    What is more and more clear, however, that the extension of Daylight Saving negatively impacts people with Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Ross  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    It’s fascinating that such a core measurement, what time is it?, first came into place in N. America because of private business concerns not government. It appears that transcontinental train service predates time zones. How did you ever know when the train would arrive in your town before time zones? Did you just hang out that time of day until it showed up?

    I thought the Daylight Savings Time section was interesting but read almost like a separate essay. One way to tie them together would have been try to explain why in 1883, private business did the standardization while it was the federal government that imposed order on Daylight Savings in 1917.

  • Nole  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    I like the citation format and it made perfect sense to me, although maybe using the title for all of the citations would make it seem more uniform, instead of having the authors name for a few of them.

  • pmottola  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    I can see how this is a historical review because it a) identifies a question and b) chronologically answers the question.

    I liked how the review drilled down from an international to national analysis. I noticed that the review did not but could have speculated as to why/if Daylight Savings Time might change again.

    Any reason why Arizona “opted out”?

  • captainchunk  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    I liked how you included images to cement concepts. Probably not perfectly OK in an academic paper, but I think it works better online and ads to the history.

    You talked about the history of time zones and how laws changed it, but you didn’t talk about the impact on the everyday citizen. Perhaps that wasn’t critical to your paper.

  • jeffhora  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Coming from a farming state, although I was a ‘townie’, DST was HUGE! It was serious business to the agriculture industry, who saw it as an opportunity to get more done during the planting and harvesting seasons (and get more work out of the part-time teenagers they hired…) since it was lighter longer.
    Given the symbiotic relationship between the railroad and the farming community, I wonder how much effect they added to the effort to enact DST?
    All I know is here in the Great Northwest, in the summer I go to bed and rise with the sun up, and in the winter, it’s dark at those two points of the day. Kind of tough on the circadian rhythms…..

  • michael bean  On 27 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

    As for historical review, it does a great job introducing where the whole issue laid its roots, then follows it up to the present with the relevant chronological points touched upon along the way.

  • sunagurol  On 27 January 2009 at 9:31 pm

    I would be interested to hear what the effects are for Hawaii and Arizona’s opting out of DST — do they have problems with transportation schedules? Lost productivity because of inter-state time differences for half of the year? Missed phone calls? Does it make a difference with agriculture?

  • Mattso  On 27 January 2009 at 9:31 pm

    I would be nice to see some more history of uses of “time zone technology” after WWII, particularly in network communications and television broadcast, considering the preponderance of nation-wide networks.

    Also, having worked years and years in broadcast, one thing that ALWAYS bothered me was when people failed at or ignored proper usage of time zone nomenclature. For example, during the Pacific Daylight Time portion of the calendar (as I was working on the west coast) we’d still get louths (basically, broadcast schedules) where the provider wrote PST at the top, which is actually short for Pacific STANDARD Time. EST = Eastern Standard Time, EDT = Eastern Daylight Time. Yeah, I guess this is a pet peeve, but it bothers me just thinking back on it. But, I guess I’m easily bothered by minor things! haha

  • gzliuzw  On 27 January 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Good historical review because it provides a comprehensive history review and moves smoothly from the past to the present.

  • christyluther  On 1 February 2009 at 7:21 pm

    This is an interesting and informative history recap; thanks for pulling it together. I visited the Royal Observatory, Greenwich a few years ago and it is part of the National Maritime Museum.

    This draws upon our previous discussions of the link between national defense and innovation: The Royal Greenwich Observatory was the place of timekeeper maintenance for the Royal Navy. Chronometers were portable time pieces used by the Navy and were ultimately replaced by improved technology.

    “The first marine timekeeper was invented by John Harrison in the 18th century, and the same basic design was used until the 1960s when chronometers began to be replaced by radio and then satellite navigation.”

    (National Maritime Museum, http://www.nmm.ac.uk/places/royal-observatory/time-galleries/)


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