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The origins of Standard Time

Back when the fastest form of transportation was by horse, people measured time based on the position of the sun. Wherever you were, it was noon when the sun was highest in the sky. Sundials were used until mechanical clocks replaced them. Each town would set their clocks based on the position of the sun, but that meant towns to the east and west would have a slightly different time: Every 12 miles of travel is one minute of difference in local sun time.

In the early part of the 19th Century, passenger trains allowed people to travel to distant towns and cities in a fraction of the time it traditionally took. While the new convenience of speed was appreciated, there were over 300 local sun times in the United States in the 1800’s which made the establishment of train schedules nearly impossible!

A Canadian civil and railway engineer, Sandford Fleming, led the effort to standardize time based on the map meridians. The large railway systems in the United States and Canada adopted the use of four standard time zones at noon on November 18, 1883.

The use of standard time was not universally accepted until many years later. Detroit kept their own local time until 1900, when the City Council decreed that clocks should be put back 28 minutes to Central Standard Time. Half the city obeyed, while the other half refused. After considerable debate, the decision was rescinded and the city reverted to sun time. It was not until 1905 that Central Standard Time was adopted by city vote!

The use of standard time gradually increased because of the obvious practical advantages for communication and travel. On March 19, 1918, the Standard Time Act was enacted by the United States Congress, which adopted the standard time zones based on those set up by the railroads.