The Business of Time

When I wrote a story years ago for an anthology called A TEXAS CHRISTMAS, I had to buy a book about early railroad travel. It was such an eye-opener. I never considered what a real mess life was before a national standard time was implemented.


Each community set their own time, usually by the position of the sun. The progression of the day was simply a local matter, marked by some well-known clock such as on a church steeple or in a jeweler’s window. No one knew if the clocks in neighboring towns were either ahead or behind his own. And they didn’t care until wide-spread travel happened.


Not only that, but in each city there were at least two systems of time in use, the local’s and the railroad’s, and if a number of railroad companies came into a city, there was an additional system for each of them. Nifty gadgets were sold that could quickly calculate the various times. Can you imagine trying to figure out all this? Oh my gosh! It must’ve been pure chaos.


As you can imagine, it created a nightmare for railroad companies (and I’m sure stage lines also) who were trying to maintain an accurate schedule.


As early as 1809, an amateur astronomer by the name of William Lambert was the first man in the U.S. to sense a growing need. He tried to get something done but no one would listen to him and pretty much considered him a crackpot.


Luckily, Professor Charles Dowd came along and published a pamphlet in 1870 entitled, “A System of National Time for the Railroads.” His original idea was to divide the country into four sections on meridian lines with each section to cover fifteen degrees of longitude or one hour in time. The meridian of Washington, D.C. was the primary meridian. The railroads immediately saw the value of the plan, but they were involved in wars over rates and were not in the mood to cooperate. The country as a whole passed on the idea. Each community took pride in its local time. They dug in their heels and resisted all efforts to make even minor adjustments.


So thirteen years passed with nothing being done. Finally, on Nov. 18, 1883 the national railroad companies in Canada and the U.S. adopted Professor Dowd’s plan. They implemented a standard time system with little inconvenience to anyone.

Chester A. Arthur

In recognition of his services, Professor Dowd received annual passes on all the railroads in the U.S. Ironically, he was killed by a train on a crossing at Saratoga, New York in 1904.


The U.S. Congress failed to address the problem. Notice any similarity here? After years of inaction, they finally passed the Standard Time Act on March 19, 1918 and signed it into law.

Then along came the Daylight Savings Plan and that upset everyone’s applecart all over again. People just get all bent out of shape when someone messes with their time, even if it’s for their own benefit. Me included. Boy, I hate when we either have to fall back an hour or spring forward. I can never remember which.


Do you agree or disagree with the time change? Which side of the fence are you on?

About LindaBroday

I'm a NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of western historical romance. I love stories of the old West and the people who once lived there. I haunt libraries and museums and can hang out in them for hours. To tell all the stories that are in my head would take a lifetime.


The Business of Time — 10 Comments

  1. Well, who would have thought time could be such a mess! I can’t imagine the nightmare it must have been to try to post train schedules. Sheesh. Poor Professor Dowd, he didn’t get to use much in the way of free train passes after the train hit him.
    No surprise Congress couldn’t get their act together to take action. Some things never change.
    I like that there is an atomic clock that has the correct time down to the millisecond. I also like that Arizona has no daylight savings time. It’s a ridiculous notion that serves no real purpose as far as I’m concerned. So, leave time on the standard and be done with it.
    Great blog full of things I didn’t know, Linda.

    • Hi Sarah……Yes indeed. Time was sure a messy business. I agree about poor Professor Dowd. And get hit by a train no less. He must’ve had awfully bad luck. I’m with you on no DST. Leave our time as it is. I really hate it.

  2. Wow! Who knew?? That is very interesting, sister and definitely not something I knew. We take time for granted without thinking about how it came to be measured.

    • Hi Sister……You never know what kind of information is my head. I’m a fount of knowledge. Glad you enjoyed my blog. We do in fact take time for granted.

  3. Interesting post. I hate it when they mess with the time. I wish they would leave it like it is now. I like having the extra daylight hours in the evening. When we fall back in the winter it is dark at 5 oclock and I don’t like it that way.

    • Hi Quilt Lady……I’m glad you enjoyed my post. We’re still having a problem with time it seems. Somehow, the farmers got along okay before DST. 🙂 But then they didn’t know you could steal an hour from the morning and add it to the evening. Ha! Bet they would’ve tried it.

  4. Linda- what an informative article. I had never the history of clocks. I can just see how unorganized things must have been. Even today things are chaotic with the time zones. I love day lights saving time, but your so correct every time we fall back or spring forward everyone is upset. Our whole lives are in dissary for about a week. Thank you for sharing this. You always have the best topics.

    • Hi Miss Tonya…….Glad to see you. Yes, unorganized is the correct word for the time mess back then. Very chaotic and it’s a wonder anyone got anywhere with so many different times. I would’ve hated to see that gadget that was supposed to calculate the differences for you. Bet it was huge and I’m horrible at math anyway. 🙂 I agree about our lives being out of whack every spring and fall. It takes me forever to get adjusted.

  5. This is a great post, Linda! So many things came along with the railroads, our standardized time being one of them. When I was writing my Steam! series, I had a railroad manager who set the time for the railroad. He didn’t care what anyone else’s watch said. The railroad ran on it’s own time. When you consider that trains only made 10-minute stops to stay “on schedule” it’s a miracle anyone caught their train. Time changes seem piddly compared to that craziness.

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating research!

    • Hi Elisabeth…….Thanks for coming by. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I thought of you when I wrote it and figured you already knew about this mess with time. It is a wonder that anyone caught their train. Every town and every railroad had their own time. You’d have to really hurry to not get left behind at one of those 10 minute stops. HaHa! Pretty crazy.