From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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November 19, 1883

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Chicago hosted a General Time Convention in 1883. There representatives of the nation's leading railroads agreed on a uniform system of time zones. As early as 1828 Britain had established a standard time. The exact hour of noon was established as the time at which the sun stood directly above the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in midsummer, or vice versa. This was a satisfactory arrangement for England, Scotland and Wales which together formed a compact nation. But the United States spanned the North American continent in 1883 and such a simple solution was not possible. Five hours separated communities on the east and west coasts. Even more locally, established time differed significantly because individual communities reckoned their own times by the sun. In Illinois alone in 1883 there were twenty-seven different local times. Railroads and their users were confused and inconvenienced by this lack of uniformity. For example, the Pennsylvania Railroad used Columbus, Ohio time for its Chicago district. This caused its trains arriving in and departing from Chicago to be nineteen minutes earlier than the local time.

The Time Convention sought to bring order to this chaos. By the plan it adopted, Greenwich mean time was accepted as zero degrees longitude. For the 180 degrees extending westward from this point, each fifteen degree increment marked the western boundary of a one-hour time zone. Thus there were twelve one-hour time zones across the planet's western hemisphere. The United States fell into four different zones of fifteen longitude degree widths. They came to be known as Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific standard times. Exceptions were made to accommodate political and geographical considerations. A large majority of railroads accepted this new scheme and they placed it in effect on November 18, 1883. Communities across the nation demonstrated their dependence on the railroad industry by adopting the new standard time system almost immediately.

Points to Consider

What does reference to "the time of the 90th Meridian for this locality" mean?

Why were railroad and city officials concerned about a standard time?

How was time determined before the adoption of standard time?

Although the new standard time gained general acceptance nationally, many complained that the railroads had imposed their conventions on the natural order. Did those dissenters have a point?

See Related Document:

32, 42 and 43

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