The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Zoning out

All the news yesterday and today has talked about Mike Wolff's new book, and how it puts into black-and-white terms what we already knew about the President. I'm reading a lot of it, and I've even pre-ordered David Frum's new book, coming out a week from Tuesday.

Fortunately, Chicago magazine published an article today about the origin of time zones in the United States, which is political but only in the nuts-and-bolts sense and not really in a partisan way. And Chicago has the story because, basically, Chicago invented time zones:

America was divided into its (mostly accepted) time zones in Chicago. Which makes sense. Chicago was and still is the biggest railroad town in the country, and the railroads were, in both the United States and Europe, the catalyst for the creation of time zones. In fact, there’s a historical argument that the challenges of scheduling trains inspired Albert Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity...

Take this time and distance indicator from 1862: when it was noon in Philadelphia, it was 12:04 in New York, 12:06 in Albany, 12:16 in Boston, and 11:54 in Baltimore. Meanwhile, it was 11:10 in Chicago, 10:59 in St. Louis, and 11:18 in Indianapolis. Synchronizing relative time across cities might have inspired Einstein’s thought experiments, but it was a poor way to run a railroad.

In 1880 Britain officially adopted Greenwich Mean Time. The Canadian railway engineer Sandford Fleming and the astronomer and meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, chief scientist of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, began correspondence about a worldwide system of time zones, proving themselves persistent advocates of what Fleming called terrestrial time. Their work was presented at the Third International Geographical Congress in Venice in 1881, the General Conference of the European Geodetic Association in 1883, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1881 and 1882.

Such a system was politically messy, requiring the coordination of governments for which time zones had political symbolism. But the railroads had only the bottom line to consider.

And so, the standard time zone was born. And at this writing, according to the Time Zone Database (of which I am a contributor), there are only 494 of them.

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