Sunday, March 9, 2014

Civil War Sunday - Does Anyone Know What Time it Is?

At 2am today, most parts of the United States suddenly lost an hour.  The clocks moved to 3am, and we (except for night workers and late partiers) slept on.  In the mornings may of us felt disoriented as the sunshine outside did not match up to the sun. Now, as I write this close to 6pm in upstate New York, it looks like there is too much light out there.  I'll feel out of balance for another day or so, and I am not the only person.

In fact, more and more of us ask - why do we do this, anyway?

This is the day we in the United States (except in Arizona, Hawaii and some territories and possessions such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) go on Daylight Savings Time.  "Spring ahead, fall back" we remind ourselves. (We will get the "lost" hour back at 2am on November 2, fear not.)

But never mind Daylight Savings Time.  Did you know there was a time when there were no standardized time zones in the United States?  And, that the Civil War was fought during that era?

As important as railroads were to the fighting of the Civil War, even the railroads hadn't yet found a way around coping with possibly up to 8,000 - yes, 8,000 - time zones in the United States. Local cities and towns set their own time, depending on the height of the sun in the sky to tell them when high noon was.  So, New York City might be on a different time than a city an hour away by train.  Just think of writing schedules, when every city had its own version of what time it was.

Each city and town having its own time worked when transportation was by walking or traveling by horse.  But, trains could run much faster.  And, I found something interesting online - a map from 1861, published two months after the Civil War began - something called "Lloyd's Americn Railroad Map, Showing the Whole Seat of War." 

On the map is a device called a Time Dial, which the railroads used to try to keep track of all those different local times, at least for 28 different cities.

Who said people in the 1860's weren't high tech?

Even the Civil War couldn't standardize time.  I had a brief taste of this kind of non-standardization for several years where my spouse and I traveled through Indiana on occasion.  Part of Indiana is on Eastern time. Part is on Central time.  Part was on Daylight time.  Part wasn't. 

Time wove back and forth and back and forth as we traveled from county to county. If we got out of your car to get gas, it was our best guess (in these days before Internet and cell phones) if we were on the same time as our last stop, an hour ahead, an hour behind, or even, the dreaded two hours behind.  (This situation was somewhat fixed in 2006).

Meanwhile, back to the 1800's. The railroads finally decided, in 1883, that they had had enough of local time. If the government wasn't going to standardize time, they would.  And so, on November 18, 1883, nearly twenty years after the Civil War ended, American and Canadian railroads started to use four standard time zones in the continental United States and Canada.  Municipalities and states followed.  And that is why we have "Standard" time zones even today.

Does your county or country go on Daylight Savings Time?


  1. Oh great to know about the time change! I have clients in the US and always have to check what time it is for meetings. We have daylight saving here in Sweden too, not yet though, but we will change soon (not sure of the day) Interesting to know about the background of standard times, thankfully here in Sweden we only have one time 😃

  2. Still getting used to Day light savings time. I don't like it when this happens because my days are shorter! Argh! Nonetheless, thanks for the great post!

  3. Holy cow! 8000 time zones! Actually before some way of conveying precise time I imagine it was impossible for everyone to be on the same clock. Even in my house many clocks read differently. I look to my cell and assume THAT is the correct one! Surely it is....


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