How Time Found Its Zone

On this day in 1883, time changed. The United States adopted four time zones. Perhaps I may have gone too far in this statement. If you fly through Phoenix you will remember that they have yet to adopt daylight savings time.

This morning, my daughter sent her first fax at the ripe old age of 10. Our family went to e-fax years ago, so it is odd to send a fax. We would probably omit the fax equipment all together but it comes as an added feature on our printer (another device that we long to remove from our equipment list). To send a fax, I showed her how to disconnect the phone line, plug it into the fax machine, yadda yadda.
After dialing the number, she heard the digit tones ring like something from the movie ET. I explained to her that all computers accessed the Internet that way only a few years ago. She looked at me in awe. You see, she has never experienced anything other than wireless Internet. She is truly a modern day gal.

Not resisting the opportunity, I expressed to her that people set clocks by the sun years ago. It was the invention of the telegraph (precursor to the fax machine and eMail) that caused the need for time zones. I explained that if it were noon in NYC, it would be 11:54 in Philadelphia, 11:25 in Pittsburg, etc. So If you sent a telegraph across the country and wanted a response by 4 PM, it would come three hours late if it was sent by 4 PM from San Francisco to NYC. It really screwed up the railroads too. People had a pretty good sense of the time of departure and the time of the journey, but little way of communicating what time to get picked up from the train department. So the railroads and the telephone companies agreed to send a telegram from the US Naval Observatory setting the time in all four US time zones. It worked so well that the rest of the world adopted the standard the following year.


When I tell Alexandra these stores, she calls them lectures. Lecture defined as a classroom lecture, not lectures like “a stern talking to.” I am never sure if she really learns anything from it, but at least we have chatted for a bit. I held back on the story about how Greenwich Mean Time came about at the International Meridian Conference (IMC) in 1884 - that is more of a political discussion.

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