Time and Transportation

Depot Agent's Office
"Running the Trains"


trains resize



America Connected 


In 1830, only 23 miles of railroad track existed the entire United States; 50 years later there were over 100,000. The middle of the 19th century saw the first efforts to transform what was a jumble of local railroads into a true national transportation system. This entailed a standardization of equipment, train signals, ticket procedures and baggage handling, as well as the coordination of train schedules. This last matter was complicated by the fact that there was no such thing as standard time.


Up until 1883, the majority of Americans obeyed apparent solar time, or time told by the sun. Even though many people owned some type of mechanical timekeeper 9which kept mean time), these clocks and watches were set by a sundial or the position of the sun itself (the best reference point being 'high noon', when the sun reached its highest point in the sky). You may remember from the longitude story that there is a relationship between solar time and location: the earth rotates and the sun seems to travel westward across the continents, high noon travels with it. This means that cities only a few miles apart have different high noons, and, hence, different local times. this made things complicated for both those that ran and used the railroads. Could a passenger arriving in Pittsburgh at 4:00 p.m. New York time catch a connecting train leaving Pittsburgh at 4"00 p.m. Pittsburgh time? the confusion only increased as rail lines were extended into the west, covering a greater span of longitude.


Many scientists, professionals, and officials felt that local time was an antiquated notion which may have been adequate when communities were fairly isolated, but was impractical in a society increasingly linked by telegraph and railroad. Standard time, they argued, was essential for technical and commercial progress. Although standard time seems perfectly logical now, it was a contentious issue at the time, meeting with opposition from many people who felt that local time, or time told by the sun, was nature's time or God's time, and should not be overturned by anyone, especially the railroads. 



America Synchronized 

In the interests of efficiency and safety most railroads maintained a single time across their entire line (usually that of the biggest city they served). In the middle of the 19th century, a busy railroad station would likely have had several clocks, each indicating the time used by a particular line.

In the 1850s, a number of railroads began subscribing to the time services offered by American observatories, paying to have accurate astronomical time signals telegraphed to each station along their individual lines. Because of services like this, a haphazard but practical system of regional standard times had evolved by the mid 1870s. thanks to consolidation and cooperation between railroads, by 1880 the traveling public only had to puzzle through through 53 distinct railroad times (down from over 80 in 1870).

Between 1872 and 1882, scientific and professional societies devoted a great deal of thought to the issue of standard time. they generally rejected the idea of a uniform public time for the entire country, advocating a time zone system that would be more in keeping with solar time. 

Several plans were advanced, and while most of them agreed on four zone boundaries and zone standards (i.e. whether to base the zones on Greenwich meridians or meridians  of major American cities).

Ultimately, it was not a scientific organization or a legislative body but a group of railroad superintendents that instituted standard time. In October 1883, the General Time Convention approved a plan establishing five North American time zones (four in the US and a fifth covering easternmost provinces of Canada) based on the Greenwich meridians. A month later, on November 18, the "day of two noons", Standard Railroad Time was put into effect. While the switch to standard time itself only amounted to a small adjustment of clocks and watches (usually less than half an hour forward or back), it represented a big conceptual change. While many communities accepted and even embraced the change as a sign and condition of progress, others thought it unnatural and refused to use it. However, it did slowly gain acceptance, and by the time standard time became law in 1918, most communities had already adopted it.







Marine Chronometers Gallery

Harrison's Legacy 


Although John Harrison had advanced a practical method of finding longitude with his prizewinning chronometer, H-4, in 1759, his successors still faced the formidable challenge of making his complex and delicate design readily reproducible and affordable. During the mid to late 1700s, many innovative individuals were making chronometers,  including Thomas Mudge, John Arnold, and Thomas Earnshaw in England, and Pierre Le Roy and Ferdinand Berthoud in France.


Benefiting from technical improvements like the detent escapement and the temperature-compensated balance wheel, a simplified version of H-4 would remain the basis of chronometer design. However, significant advances would be made in chronometer production.

Armold and Earnshaw were the first to show that quality sea clocks could be produced in quantity, and by the end of the 18th century, standard movements were being produced by cottage industry methods in England. Meanwhile, French chronometer making followed more traditional lines of individual craftsmanship, each maker turning out a limited number of innovative hand-finished clocks. This French reluctance to adopt modern production methods allowed England to emerge as the chronometer capital of the world.


The demand for chronometers fell off as the age of exploration drew to a close, but was temporarily revived by the need for navigational instruments during both World Wars. However, this period also saw the rise of alternative methods of navigation based on radio and radar which, before long, would eclipse the chronometer. It must be noted that although considered a secondary means of navigation today, the chronometer is the only navigational method that is completely self-reliant. in the event of downed power sources, loss of radio communications, or satellite malfunction, the chronometer remains a reliable means of navigating the seas.


What is a Chronometer?


Chronometer is a widely used term that usually fits one or more of the following definitions.

  1. A precise clock


  2. A timepiece which has met a set of requirements for accuracy in various temperatures and conditions as set forth by some regulating institution such as a U.S. Naval Observatory


  3. A clock with a chronometer escapement which is a spring detent.



What is a Marine Chronometer?

Marine Chronometers are highly accurate clocks kept aboard ships to aid in navigation. The chronometer is set to Greenwich time. When the time of this clock is compared with the local time at sea a ship's navigator can determine the longitude at that position. As a result, it is important that such clocks keep accurate time amid variations in temperature, humidity and the motions of the sea.







Car Clock Gallery
"Time on the Road"

Clocks in Motion 

Travelers have benefited from any number of portable timepieces over the years—from pocket sundials to pocket watches. During the 19th century, as more and more people began to travel by carriage, they needed timepieces that could travel with them. One such timepiece was the carriage clock, whose remarkably shockproof movement was perfected by the French watchmaker Abraham Louis Brequet in the late 18th century. In other instances, pocket watches were placed in leather holders that fit over the front board of the carriage. As inventors and manufacturers like Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Charles and J. Frank Duryea, Henry Ford, and Ransom E. Olds furthered development of the automobile, a new breed of clock was introduced—the car clock.

By 1908, speedometer companies were producing and marketing clocks as after-market accessories. Over the next decade, the car clock grew in popularity and several companies began catering to the growing market, including the Phinney-Walker Keyless Clock Company, the Warner Instrument Company, the Seth Thomas Clock Company, the Stewart Speedometer Company, the Chelsea Clock Company, and the Boston Clock Company. In some cases, there was a clear crossover between marine clocks and automobile clocks. Waltham, a major supplier of car clocks, marketed identical timepieces for both automobiles and boats.

Manufactures gave customers many choices offering models that mounted on general interior surfaces, dashboards, steering wheels, gearshifts, and rear-view mirrors. The winding mechanisms also evolved from key-wind clocks to stem-wind clocks to rim-wind clocks. During the 1930s and 1940s, electric automobile clocks were in production, but mechanical clocks were still being offered. It was not until 1950s and 1960s that electric clocks truly dominated the market, at least up until the advent of quartz technology. Today's car clocks mostly have quartz movements, however new technologies like Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are available as both production abd after-market accessories.