Essay, Thinking, Hard and Soft
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Time and the Rail Revolution

Image: A Swiss Railway Clock. Photo Credit: Yang Yuxin

Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft

In the 19th century railways brought about a revolution in speed. A trip of days by coach became a matter of hours by train. But there was a problem. Every town had its own local solar time. Solar time and space are linked: each degree of longitude is 24 hours divided by 360 degrees, which is four minutes of time. In England, Oxford ran five minutes behind London, while Leeds was another minute behind and Bristol was ten minutes off the mark.

When travel was slow the time shifts were manageable. After a day or two travelling by coach, you’d simply adjust your watch to local time upon arrival, like we do today when we travel by airplane. On a longer trip by sea you might notice your lunch time shifting relative to the time on your watch – no big deal.

On a rail network, dealing with a profusion of local times became impractical and dangerous: you can’t have trains travelling to different local times moving toward each other on the same line. Extending across one hundred and five degrees of longitude, the problem of “many times” was particularly pronounced in the USA. To operate safely, train managers had to ignore local times and adopt a single “artificial” railway time to manage trains on a particular line. By 1870, four-hundred rail companies ran to seventy-five different railroad times and passengers had a hard time catching trains. You had to translate from your local time to rail-time and back again to another local time to meet someone at the other end – and that’s without changeovers.

Sandford Fleming was Canada’s leading railway engineer. Apart from engineering Canada’s great 19th century rail projects he was one of the 19th century’s greatest “influencers”. His energy and conviction steered the world’s nations towards standardized time. In 1876, Fleming proposed to divide the world into 24 time zones of 15 degrees longitude each, with the meridian 180 degrees from Greenwich as the reference line. Time would be the same within a zone and differ by one hour between adjacent zones.

It took another eight years to bring everyone together. At the Meridian Conference held In Washington in 1884, delegates from twenty-six nations agreed to the spirit, if not the letter, of Fleming’s proposal. They settled on Greenwich as the prime meridian. It was a natural choice: GMT was the long-held maritime standard for time-keeping and American train managers had already adopted a time-zone system based on it.

We take it for granted today, but time standardization met with resistance wherever it was proposed. It was an unnatural change for many, to exchange the natural rhythm of the sun for a synchronised precision. In Britain, where the railway boom brought London time to the country as early as 1840, Dickens described the mood in his book Dombey and Son: “there was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given out.”

There was also political resistance. Local time was part of local identity. Towns displayed their own time next to London time as a matter of local pride and France would have preferred to use its own meridian as the global standard. Paris switched to GMT in 1911. In Germany, it wasn’t until a stone-old General Moltke convinced the Reichstag of its military benefits that the idea was adopted in 1893: imagine the chaos of military units synchronized to different local times travelling on trains running on varying train times.

The evolution from local time through railway time to universal time illustrates that local standards don’t always precede global agreement while global standards don’t automatically replace local habits and influencers don’t have to be famous.

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