Monday, March 19, 2018

Centennial: Official Enactment of U.S. Time Zones & Daylight Saving Time

Telegraph equipment used to transmit Standard Time from
the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, starting in 1869.
The Allegheny Time service established the first Standard
Time used by railroads and cities, leading to the first 
time zones in 1883, which became official Federal Government
policy a hundred years ago today (March 19).
(Image Sources: Allegheny Observatory,,
By Shane Simmons - Allegheny Observatory, CC BY-SA 2.0, )

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

A century ago today (March 19), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Standard Time Act of 1918, which officially established time zones in the United States as well as Daylight Saving Time. Although time zones had been unofficially observed for a few decades.

The Standard Time Act of 1918, also known as the Calder Act, was a way of making official and consistent a practice that had started with the railroads in 1883. In fact, it was with the rapid growth of the railroads, in North America, that led to the desperate need for time zones.

With the establishment of many railroads in North America in the middle of the 19th century, it was very difficult to schedule trains. Each railroad and each city went by their own time. In the case of cities, their official clocks were often set to local solar time, with Noon being when the Sun was highest in the sky. People traveling by railroad had to continually convert the time from the city they were leaving to their destination city, to understand the railroad schedules.

This confusion also led to railroad accidents. Sometimes trains collided because it was completely unclear which train should be on a certain track at a certain time. Something had to be done.

However, before they even thought about setting-up time zones, they had to find a good way of determining and disseminating the correct time. This problem was resolved by a young scientist, who was trying to find a way to pay the operational costs of his university's astronomical observatory.

In 1867, Samuel Pierpont Langley (who in 1887 became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, then considered the nation's greatest scientific appointment) accepted the position as Director of the Allegheny Observatory, which had just been donated to the Western University of Pennsylvania (now known as the University of Pittsburgh) by the Allegheny Telescope Association. Now known as the North Side of Pittsburgh, at that time the Allegheny Observatory was located in Pittsburgh's “twin city” of Allegheny City.

The Allegheny Telescope Association, a private club of astronomy enthusiasts, had originally opened the Allegheny Observatory in 1861 with the third largest telescope in the world, a 13-inch Fitz Refractor (the two larger telescopes, both 15-inch refractors, were located at Harvard College Observatory and in Russia). However, the cost of operating such a large observatory became unsustainable, resulting in the donation to the University.

When Professor Langley arrived in Allegheny City, he found that he had a large observatory, but with no money to operate the facility. Through the financial assistance of Pittsburgh businessman and philanthropist William Thaw, Sr. (who was also the University Trustee who had invited Professor Langley to the University), Professor Langley was able to acquire the equipment needed to start a professional research program.

One of the pieces of new equipment purchased was a transit telescope, used to determine the precise time by observing certain stars. Professor Langley decided that he could obtain the funds to operate the Observatory by determining the precise time each day, and at Noon sending the time (via the telegraph) to railroads and cities which would subscribe to the service for a set cost. As William Thaw was also a Vice President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad became the first customer for the Allegheny Time service, soon followed by the cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City.

Time service subscriptions brought-in nearly $3000 annually for operation of the Allegheny Observatory, starting in 1869. By 1870 the Allegheny Time service extended over 2,500 miles with 300 telegraph offices receiving time signals. The Allegheny Observatory's time service is considered the first regular and systematic system of time distribution to railroads and cities, as well as the origin of the modern Standard Time system.

Following the successful establishment of Allegheny Time, several proposals were made to set-up time zones throughout the country, for the benefit of the railroads. College professor Charles F. Dowd made the first detailed proposal in 1870, where four time zones were proposed. Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming proposed local time zones throughout the world, but also suggested that all railroads should adopt one single time scale, which he called “Cosmic Time,” so that there would be no confusion in railroad timetables.

Cleveland Abbe, who was Director of the Cincinnati Observatory from 1868 to 1873, became the first Director of the United States Weather Bureau in 1871. In 1879, he recommended the establishment of Standard Time world-wide and four time zones across the country, to better coordinate weather observations.

William F. Allen, Secretary of the General Time Convention (known as the American Railway Association starting in 1891), proposed that North American railroads set-up five time zones for the continent, to avoid imposition of a government system. On 1883 October 11 at a meeting at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago, the heads of the major railroads agreed to adopt the five-zone system.

Upon a telegraphic time signal from the Allegheny Observatory, at precisely 12:00 Noon (at the 90th meridian west longitude, in the mid-west) on Sunday, 1883 November 18, American and Canadian railroads instituted the five-zone system. From then on, other major observatories, including the Harvard College Observatory, U.S. Naval Observatory, and Yale University Observatory, joined the Allegheny Observatory in providing telegraphic time signals to the railroads every day at 12:00 Noon, Eastern Time.

A few railroads adopted the new system earlier in 1883, on October 7, while a few others adopted it late on December 2. And, while the Atlantic Time Zone was part of the new system, the Intercolonial Railway (the only rail line serving the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the new Atlantic Time Zone) decided to adopt the time scale from the Eastern Time Zone.

As mentioned, the railroads set-up the five-time zone system to avoid the Federal Government setting-up their own system. This railroad system lasted until 1918, when the Federal Government decided to make the time zone system official. By this time, technology and the Industrial Revolution had advanced so much that railroads were not the only industry that needed a consistent time system.

Due to the need to save energy as the United States entered World War I, the Standard Time Act of 1918 included a provision for Daylight Saving Time (note that there is no letter “s” at the end of the word “Saving”) during the warmer-weather months of the year. This was the first time the United States had instituted Daylight Saving Time since something similar was first suggested by Benjamin Franklin.

March 31 marks the centennial for the commencement of Daylight Saving Time in the United States; time reverted to Standard Time on 1918 October 27. In 2018, Daylight Saving Time began on March 11; this year Daylight Saving Time ends on November 4.

Changing daily habits to take advantage of more daylight during the Summer months was first proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1784, while he was a diplomat in Paris. In an anonymous letter that was published, he used satire to suggest that it would be better to use the sunlight of the morning rather than to waste candles in the evening. His essay, “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light,” written to the editor of The Journal of Paris, was actually penned partially in-jest; hence, nothing came of the idea. Although, it should be noted that he did not actually propose a plan similar to the Daylight Saving Time we know today.

Robert Garland, a Pittsburgh industrialist and a member of the Pittsburgh City Council for 28 years (1911 to 1939), is considered the “Father of Daylight Saving,” as he chaired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's national “Special Committee on Daylight Saving.” He fought hard for the establishment of Summer Daylight Saving Time.

Although spurred by farmers and other agricultural interests who never liked Daylight Saving Time, the U.S. Congress repealed the plan seven months later over a veto by President Wilson. However, several cities including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City continued using Daylight Saving Time during the Summer months.

Daylight Saving Time was resurrected as “War Time” during World War II, also to save energy during the War. After the War, some cities and states continued using Daylight Saving Time, but often the beginning and ending of Daylight Saving Time was not consistent from one state to another. The Federal Uniform Time Act of 1966 solved this problem by prescribing the start and end times of Daylight Saving Time, for those states which chose to participate.

Internet Links to Additional Information ---

Map - North American Time Zones:
Link >>>

Map of the time zones in the Eastern United States, when the State of Ohio was in 2 time zones (this map is posted on the bulletin board of the Allegheny Observatory Library):
Link >>>
(Image Source: Francis G. Graham, Professor Emeritus of Physics, Kent State University & former Planetarium & Observatory Lecturer at Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science)

Standard Time Act of 1918: Link >>>

U.S. Daylight Saving Time: Link >>>

Uniform Time Act of 1966: Link >>> 

Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh ---
Link 1 >>>
Link 2 >>>

Samuel Pierpont Langley: Link >>>
Photo of S.P. Langley:
Link >>>

Robert Garland: Link >>>

Related Blog Posts ---

"Centennial: U.S. Daylight Saving Time Commences." 2018 March 31.

Link >>>

"Some States to Abandon Daylight Saving Time ?" 2016 March 13.

Link >>>


"Centennial: New Allegheny Observatory Dedication." 2012 Aug. 28.

Link >>>


Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.
             2018 March 19.

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Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
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* Civil War Museum of Andrew Carnegie Free Library:
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Duquesne Incline cable-car railway, Pittsburgh:
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