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Saturday, February 26, 2005

"The irregularity and diversity of time"

A letter to the editor of the North American Review in 1815 begins this way:
I address you on a subject which causes some inconvenience here [Boston], and probably, the same difficulty exists in other parts of the United States; this is the irregularity and diversity of time. There is no common standard, and every district is regulated by a clock of its own. The difference between the time in Boston, and the villages about it, is always considerable, and in some instances it varies upwards of half an hour. There is generally this difference at least between Salem and Boston; this often interferes with appointments in business, and in certain circumstances a criminal might be able to prove an alibi on this very ground. . . . It would be a great convenience to many persons, if every city and village had a horizontal [sun]dial in some publick, central situation. The clocks and watches might then all be regulated by this, and time would have a common regulator.

"Regulation of Time," North American Review, vol. 1:3 (September 1815): 334-335.
The writer's proposal was a very modest one and would not have standardized time, as we know it, over great stretches of the landscape. Standardization occurred in two stages over the nineteenth century. First, American railroads developed a patchwork of dozens of different time zones (the "hardscrabble" system of some 55 time zones, if I remember right). Then in 1880s, in an effort to pre-empt moves in several state legislatures and in Congress to legislate standard time zones (one proposal was for a single, nationwide zone), the railroads, newly organized in a national association, reduced their motley collection to our present-day time zones.

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