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A matter of timing

In January we said we’d be highlighting one of our favorite rare books throughout the year so here we go. The Gay’s Standard Encyclopedia and Self-Educator from 1885.

Let me take a brief detour. We have this clock in one of the staff areas. I took a picture of it today. At about 12:55 pm.

Processing area clock

Processing area clock

Nice, right? I’m not sure why it’s wrong. When we put in new batteries, we generally set it to the correct time. And it’s consistently off by 4 hours and 40 minutes now, so at some point it went crazy and then settled back down into normal timekeeping. (It’s in kind of a hard-to-reach space and it’s not really a clock we need to use a lot, so that’s why we haven’t set it to the correct time.)

But after reading a section on time zones in the Encyclopedia, I suddenly feel a lot better about this clock and our lack of fixing it. I don’t think about time zones much, except when calling people in other ones, but I’d never really thought of the genesis behind standardized time zones. The Encyclopedia has a short chapter on how in 1873 the US and Canada had 70 different railroad time standards. Mostly based on major hubs and when noon occurred in those hubs. By 1883 they had been reduced to 53. One railroad man, W. F. Allen, proposed a set of only 5, and this took effect–for the railroads–in 1883.

The logic of that is inescapable, now that I think of it. It would be disaster prevention at its finest for the railroads! Can you imagine keeping trying to prevent head-on crashes between trains traveling between Boston and New York City when in 1882 the cities were on time standards that were 12 minutes apart? If that just took you all back to 8th grade story problems, I apologize. I’m just grateful that back when I was doing those story problems, I didn’t have to calculate in those kinds of differentials. I feel a great deal of sympathy for all those railroad timetable keepers back in the day who did have to do these calculations.

Sometimes, depending on where I’m at within a time zone compared to the meridian point of that zone, I don’t really like the standardized time zones. I think it would be nice to have noon at noon when the sun is directly overhead. But then I think of all of the communication we have with people in other areas and how confusing it would be to arrange any sort of a tele or videoconference and it suddenly becomes a good idea again.

At any rate, the book has a lovely chart detailing the differences in time zones for the eastern half of the United States (primarily) and what the new 1883 standard meant for those. Here it is, from page 372. With Washington DC as the center of this chart, though the meridians for the time zones were selected a little more arbitrarily (60, 75, 90, 105, and 120).


If you do decide to read this section, I’ll warn you in advance. The author of the piece closes off the explanation of the standards with a comment about the potential for future adoption of the railroad standard in the non-railroad world. And here it is, in all its punful glory:

How far these changes will become general, time will tell.

 Sorry about that.

One Comment

  1. Fascinating! And a little mind-boggling!

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