Remember calling in to find out what time it was when you were a kid? It seems quaint and old fashioned in a world of smart phones. But those electronic pips represent a revolution in the way that we think about time - not as something to be measured by the passing of the stars and the sun, but as a steady beat counted out in rational, scientific terms. It wasn’t a shift that came easily. People died in droves because disagreements about what time it was. In the US, at least, it was a decision heavily influenced by powerful corporations. But more on that in a bit. Let’s start with how time used to be.
Anthony Cook: I’m Anthony Cook, I’m the astronomical observer at Griffith Observatory.
Anthony and his fellow astronomers are some of the few people left who tell time the old fashioned way - by looking up.
Anthony cook: In astronomy, we use a type of time called sidereal time, that’s time reckoned by the position of the stars in your specific place. So we have a specific sidereal time for Griffith Observatory. And basically, what it tells us is what’s right overhead at that moment
But just because it’s based on nature doesn’t mean it always comes naturally. I asked him, off hand, what he thought the local sidereal, or star-based, time was when we sat down last December.
At this point, Anthony decided to consult a computer program Griffith’s astronomers use to help orient the observatory telescope.
Basically, what he’s laying out is the cornerstone of how humans across the world have measured time for thousands of years : by charting the progress of the sun, stars and planets across the sky. We headed outside to look at more familiar traditional way of telling time: the sundial. It was serving a dual purpose as home base for a group of boys playing tag.
Anthony Cook: See! It still works
So what’s the problem with telling time the old fashioned way? Kids love it. Astronomer’s adore it. It’s natural and in-sync with the rhythms of the earth.
You may have caught the answer earlier. If you measure time from high noon - when the sun is directly above your head - every place on earth will have a slightly different noon. For example: Griffith Observatory, which is on the eastern edge of LA, is about 3 minutes behind Riverside, a town roughly sixty miles inland.
Those three minutes were not a problem for most of human history, when it could take days to go sixty miles. No one was ever going fast enough to notice his watch wasn’t in sync with the guy living a couple towns over. They didn’t even have watches to compare . But that all changed roughly a hundred and eighty years ago when people started traveling by train.
It’s hard to overstate what a change trains made to nearly every aspect of American life. In 1800, it took six weeks to go from Chicago to New York. By the 1860s, it took two days. Trains opened up previously inaccessible parts of the country for settlement, made it possible to ship everything from soldiers to mail to oranges across the nation. Train travel meant ordinary people were traveling faster, farther and in greater numbers than ever before in history.
It opened up our world.
But it was also killing people.
On a lovely summer morning in August 1853 near Pawtucket Rhode Island, a train conductor named Frederick Putnam pulled out his pocket watch. His train was running late.
Around a curve was a section of track called the Boston switch that only ran one way, where conductors had to alternate. According to his watch, he had a few minutes, before a northbound train would be on that oneway track, forcing him to wait. Eager to make up time, he ordered his engineer to pour on the speed so they’d be the first train through.
The other train was already on the switch. The two trains collided at full speed, killing 14 people and injuring another 60.
It was the last straw in a heinous year for rail accidents. 1853 had seen 65 train wrecks and 165 deaths across the country - including President-elect Franklin Pierce’s son, Bernie. Her son’s death, compounded by the sight of his crushed and nearly decapitated body, threw Mrs Pierce into a deep depression. She spent her time in the White House draping rooms in mourning bunting and writing heart-breaking letters to her dead son. Her husband, who took office just two months after the accident, essentially drank himself to death.
The railroads realized that something had to be done. In the case of the Rhode Island accident and many other collisions, the tragedy could have been prevented if only the two conductors had the same time on their watches. Management decided that each line would have a standard time. If a train line started in Philadelphia, say, all its conductors would be on Philadelphia time all the way through their run, instead of constantly adjusting their watches in every town they passed through. In big cities, this idea wasn’t so radical. Citizens in New York, for example, had given up telling time by the sun in favor of citywide standardized time long ago. Western Union would drop a time ball - think of the New Year’s Eve Ball drop in Times Square minus the mirrors and flashing lights - from a tall building at exact noon so the whole city could synchronize their watches.
Eventually, many small towns began to give up their time in favor of railroads time.
But there were still over a dozen different RR times. Switching trains between companies could could be a nightmare. Stations often had to have several clocks noting the times in the different cities where rail lines originated,
Pressure to consolidate a national standard time began to build. By 1863, there was at least one proposal for standardized time zones similar to the zones we used today. But it wasn’t until the 1880s that all the major railroads agreed to adopt four time zones which roughly corresponded to our current Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific zones. Finally, on November 3, 1883, standardized time was implemented by railroad companies in US and Canada, with most states agreeing to adopt the zones as well. The plan was for every town to stop its clock at local noon, wait for standard time to catch up, and start the clocks again. The press quickly dubbed it ‘the day of two noons.’ Here’s how things went down in New York City, according to the New York Times
"Curious people, some of whom could not exactly understand how the time could be changed without some serious results, crowded the sidewalk in front of jewelry stores and watch repair establishments to see the great transformation. There was a universal expression of disgust when it was discovered that all that was necessary to effect the change was to stop the clock for four minutes and then start it again. A large crowd gathered in the vicinity of the City Hall to watch the change as indicated on the faces of the clock which rests under the shadow of the restored Cypriote antique of Justice.
A vermilion topped Hibernian to his companion who was watching the south face of the clock, “the thing has stopped; phwats the matther wid it, anyhow? I don’t see no time changin’, do you Mike?”
The two gazed steadily at the clock, and saw the minute hand again start on its course…one sadly remarked to the other, “I towld yer ’twas a sell. The clock’s running agin,and there’s been nary a change of time at all, at all.”
But not everyone agreed with Standard Time. Some thought it blasphemous, since God clearly intended us to tell time by the sun. Others found it an example of big government run amok, trampling the rights of states and territories to regulate their own time. For the next thirty years or so, towns or even whole states would rebel against standard time and go back to local. Less than a year after the day of two noons, the New York Times published this breathless dispatch from Augusta Maine:
It wasn’t until 1918 that the US made Standard time into federal law. It’s now based on the time kept by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado - a clock so precise, it will neither gain nor lose a second in more than 100 million years.
That doesn’t mean the battle over time is over. Now it’s in space. Astronomers and the agencies which run GPS satellites are battling over the leap second. The leap second is an adjustment that’s used to keep our atomic time in sync with the earth’s rotation. It would be far easier to coordinate the GPS system if we used atomic time instead of having to constantly adjust for imperfect solar time. But if we do that, we’ll drift ever so slowly out of sync with nature. The positions of constellations in the sky will no longer match our clocks, or eventually, our calendars. We’ll have lost our connection with the origin of time.