The Lost Years

Mark Pottenger

Started January 2003--planned to extract more data, but never finished.

I’ve been aware of what a mess the history of standard and daylight time is ever since the period in the mid-1970s when I worked for ACS. I’ve also known since Arthur Blackwell brought it to my attention a few years later that any time before the late 1700s was probably in LAT (Local Apparent Time or Sundial Time). I’ve recently (in 2001 & 2002) finished reading a book that brings home what a real mess timekeeping was in the 1800s.

The book prompting these comments is Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America by Ian R. Bartky. Stanford University Press; (c) 2000; ISBN 0-8047-3874-2.

I’ve mentioned piecemeal changes from LAT to LMT to zone times in my previous articles about time, but even the details I gave don’t convey the messiness of times in the 1800s. Mechanical ways to track time (clocks and watches) kept improving, from devices less reliable than a sundial to devices thousands or millions of times more regular and reliable than any system of time based on observable astronomical motions. Railroads increased the speed of travel, allowing people to quickly move between locations where the local times are noticeably different. The telegraph, followed by the telephone and later radio, allowed people to communicate between locations with different local times. For varying numbers of years, some observatories performed observations to determine local time and supplied time signals as a way to make money. These and other technological, cultural and personal threads wove together to make time in the 1800s very complicated!

Time was intimately tied to astronomy until the 20th century, which saw the development of atomic clocks (and even more precise refinements). The first chronometer accurate enough for ships to determine longitude at sea was developed in the 1760s, and clock technology has continued to improve ever since then. Because of elliptical orbits and planetary tilts, most astronomical cycles include variations in speed. Time tied directly to astronomy (like sundial time) therefore varies around a mean. Mechanical timekeepers, in contrast, produce times that are consistent within their limits of accuracy. It is therefore natural to progress from LAT to LMT as mechanical timekeeping becomes the primary system in a society. However, mean time clocks still need to be tied to the Earth we live on based on astronomical observations. Until atomic clocks became the international standards, astronomers made transit observations and performed calculations to determine the mean time. Of course, for many years accurate mean time determined by astronomers was not needed by most people. Anyone could periodically set their watch or clock based on a sundial and the time was “good enough”. It was the spread of railroads and other technology that made accurate and consistent times important for many people.

Time balls are a technology that largely came and went during the 1800s, with just a few relics like the Times Square ball still around. The balls were developed as a way for a well-determined time to be signaled to a large number of people. Time balls were installed in a number of U. S. cities in the 1800s: coastal (port) cities first, but also some inland cities later. They faded from use when other technology superseded them.

A feature in the input routines of the CCRS Horoscope Program looks especially useful for data in the 1800s. I defined a time-type I called LCT for Local City Time, which allowed a chart for one location to use a time zone meridian based on another location (by entering a city name, longitude or time). When I wrote that, I only knew of Paris Time and a few other examples where LCT would be needed. For the U. S. in the middle of the 1800s, LCT might be needed a lot. There were many railroads that used the time defined by one location on a route for all train stations on the route. For train stations and anything that shared their times, the time signature was the LCT of the defining location. Since there were many competing railroads defining their own time standards, a large city with many rail connections could have several competing LCT standards all in use at the same time. This chaos existed for several decades, changing over time as railroad companies and routes came and went.

The telegraph was the first means for electrically distributing time information. Many railroads and some other organizations used telegraphs to send time information long distances. An offshoot of telegraph technology that spread widely in the second half of the 1800s was the fire-alarm telegraph. Companies set up networks within cities to allow fire alarm signals to be transmitted. Once those signal networks were in place, some were also used to distribute time signals. These networks marked the beginning of having the same time standard agreed to anywhere in a large city.

Clock technology developed in the 1800s eventually allowed clocks to be automatically corrected by signals distributed from a central source. Telephone networks eventually replaced telegraph networks as the mechanism of choice for distributing time information. In the 20th century, radio became a major means for distributing time signals.

There was intermittent public debate about a variety of issues related to time standards and longitude standards during the 1800s, but there was very little legislation or government policy. The 1883 date used by most references as the start of zone-based standard times in the U. S. does not mark any sort of legal change. That is the date of implementation of a change agreed to by the country’s railroads. There were 49 railroad time standards in use in 1883 before the zone system was started. The railroads implemented their new zone system in 1883 and everyone else gradually followed their example. It wasn’t until World War I in the 20th century that the U. S. passed its first national time standards law.

Here are a few dates extracted from the book to give a glimpse of the 1800s:

1829: first time ball at Portsmouth, England.

Late 1830s: railroads widespread.

1838: steamship service across the Atlantic. Chronometers sent by steamship matched astronomical determinations of longitudes fairly well.

1843: U. S. Coast Survey began 12-year project determining longitudes.

24 May 1844: first U. S. transmission of a time by telegraph.

Some time before mid-April 1845: time ball on top of Naval Observatory (ball dropped at noon mean time of observatory meridian).

No observatory wired to telegraph until 1847.

1847: Chicago appointed an official timekeeper.

17 November 1848: clock - recording pen - telegraph circuits tested.

1849: three times in Boston: city official time with State House meridian, Cambridge Observatory time (16 seconds earlier), railroad time (2 minutes earlier than that).

7 December 1849: transmitting clock placed in operation at Naval Observatory.

21 January 1851: telegraph link from Harvard College Observatory to Wm. Bond & Son in Boston (clock makers).

31 March 1851: New York & Erie Railroad uses Piermont, NY time (sent by telegraph) for all its clocks.

1852: Royal Observatory at Greenwich distribution of mean time expanded by several telegraph lines.

20 April 1852: fire-alarm telegraph in operation in Boston.

9 & 12 August 1853: fatal rail accidents with poor timekeeping implicated.

1853: new railroad timekeeping rules.

29 April 1854: Boston Electric Clock Company incorporated (soon faded).

January 1857: Rutherfurd’s Observatory (New York University) began distributing city-wide time signals used to strike bells at 9 every evening in New York.

1857: Railroad Guide Comparative Time Table with times for 102 cities & towns.

1858: English court ruling that civil time is local (not Greenwich) time (until 1880).

July 1858: fire-alarm telegraph used to ring noon bells around Boston.

January 1860 (to 1861?): time ball on roof of capitol in Albany with time from Dudley Observatory.

May 1860: time ball in New York City with time from Dudley Observatory (abandoned fairly quickly).

1861-1867: tiny time ball in window of Benjamin Marsh, jeweler, with time from Dudley Observatory, was Albany’s public signal.

1868: Dudley Observatory signals rang Albany fire-alarm bells at 9 AM & 9 PM

1870: Over 400 railway companies using over 75 time standards.

September 1870: Dowd System of National Time published.

1871: Chicago Court House clock with time from Dearborn Observatory. Service affected by October 1871 fire (suspended?).

Mid-1871: Allegheny Observatory Time Service used by Pennsylvania Central Railroad (RR used three times: Philadelphia, Altoona & Columbus).

1873: More railroads & city of Pittsburgh used Allegheny Observatory Time Service. Spread of signals east to NY & NJ, north to Great Lakes, west to Indianapolis & Chicago.

By 1875: Dearborn Observatory supplying mean time to Chicago railroads & businesses via Western Electric & Western Union.

After 1875: Cincinnati Observatory began distributing mean time to public.

January 1881: Dearborn Observatory supplying time to City of Chicago.

Noon Sunday 18 November 1883: start of Standard Railway Time.

Copyright © 2003 Mark Pottenger

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