GeneralGeographyHistory

Why do we have time zones?

Among Benito Mussolini’s rather short list of accomplishments is the claim that the Italian fascist party made the trains run on time. That claim – used both in earnest and as a critique of the lure of authoritarianism – is not true. Most of the work to improve the Italian railway system was done before Benito’s time, and the schedules were far more lax than the fascists proclaimed.

However, the phrase highlights two key points in the story of time zones: the intimate link between the railway and time and the deific power associated with its control.

Meet me in the morning

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While provincial life demanded arduous labor in the fields, it didn’t necessitate adherence to a strict time schedule. You worked from dawn till dusk, but the minutes of the day weren’t much of an issue. Throughout the 18th century, towns set their own local times, and life proceeded without great concern for the time of day on some distant hill across the country. Without telephones or rapid transit, time conventions across major cities were a non-issue.

New frontiers

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All of this was bound to change in 1830 when Peter Cooper built the first American locomotive to pull a passenger car. The development of railroads revolutionized transportation and trade throughout the 19th century. By 1869, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and Americans could make the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast in a matter of weeks on the train instead of risking their lives over the course of four to six months by wagon or ship. The rapid growth of the railway system changed the face of America, opening completely new horizons, but it also presented a number of problems.

A tangled mess

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One key issue was a matter of keeping the time. Local times worked fine for scheduling within a city, but they were a nightmare for setting time schedules for trains operating across state lines. In 1875, American railways recognized 75 different time zones, three of which were in Chicago alone. Trains running off schedule were more than an inconvenience for passengers. Conflicts in scheduling could be a matter of life or death in the event that trains crossed paths. By the late 19th century, it was clear that a standard convention was required.

One moment in time

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The U.S. and Canada adopted a standard time system in 1883. The system was based on Earth’s axial rotation and a reference point. Given that Earth rotates 360 degrees every 24 hours, each hour comprises a 15-degree rotation. Thus, the times zones are divided into 24 15-degree "slices" referenced by a central point: the Prime Meridian. Since the divisions are longitudinal, the reference point from which time zones would be determined is arbitrary. However, by the late 19th century, 72% of the world’s sea charts were drafted with Greenwich, England, as the Prime Meridian at a longitude of zero. Proceeding from convention, U.S. President Chester Arthur argued for the establishment of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) at an international convention in 1884.

Pushing the clocks back

Photo of 18 clocks displaying times from different time zones on a wall
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However, the universal time conventions weren’t embraced with universal acclaim. In 1906, riots in Bombay and a petition involving 15,000 Indian citizens lashed out against standardized time as a British colonial imposition. In 1949, communist leaders in China abolished the previous four time zones into one zone. Australia made its own time zone between two extant ones, and even within the United States, the state of Indiana straddled time zones and declared half under Central Time and half under Eastern.

Through the lens of history, these may appear as petty grievances, but in the late 19th century, standardized time under an explicit Eurocentric convention was the equivalent to a declaration that the sky would henceforth be referred to as green. Over the years, the progression of transport and communications systems made global coordination a part of everyday life, and the UTC became ubiquitous. Though it may have come with some resistance, UTC finally made the trains run on time.