Today in History

Today in History: November 18

Time!

Half a clock
… Upper Half of Clock or Watch Face,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
ca. 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

On November 18, 1883, precisely at noon, North American railroads switched to a new standard time system for rail operations, which they called Standard Railway Time (SRT). Almost immediately after being implemented, many American cities enacted ordinances, thus resulting in the creation of time "zones.” The four standard time zones adopted were eastern standard time, central daylight time, mountain standard time, and Pacific daylight time. Though tailored to the railroad companies' train schedules, the new system was quickly adopted nationwide, forestalling federal intervention in civil time for more than thirty years, until 1918, when daylight saving time was introduced.

railroad map
Standard Time Zones of the World,
Central Intelligence Agency,
Washington, D.C., 2007.
Geography and Map Division

Before clocks, people marked time by the sun and the phases of the moon. With the development of the railway and the invention of the telegraph, accurate time became more important. Prior to adopting SRT, trains traveling east or west between towns had a difficult time maintaining coherent schedules and smooth operations. The new time zones were each one-hour wide, simplifying train schedules and virtually everything else in increasingly industrialized America.

clocks
[Clock of Frank Bohacek, Upper Section],
Chicago Daily News, photographer,
February 21, 1908.
Photographs from the Chicago Daily News

The SRT system was based on geography, economics, the locations of major cities, and the habits and needs of the populace. The one-hour difference in zones was a result of the fact that fifteen degrees of longitude corresponds to one-hour difference in solar time. It was decided that official time would correspond to the mean solar time of the closest meridian of longitude that could be divided evenly by fifteen degrees and was referenced to the meridian at Greenwich, England. There are twenty-four meridians fifteen degrees apart that circle the globe, beginning with Greenwich, the “prime” meridian.

Two men and a clock
Taking the Time, Brooklyn Navy Yard,
ca. 1890-1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Impetus for the adoption of standardized time, however, did not originate with the railroads. Astronomers and geophysicists, trying to get simultaneous observations from scattered geographical locations, had long advocated standardized time.

Beginning in 1875, Cleveland Abbe—astronomer, meteorologist, and the first head of the U.S. Weather Bureau—lobbied the American Meteorological Society (AMS) to take action on a uniform standard time. The AMS then established the Committee on Standard Time and named Abbe chairman. In 1879, the committee's Report on Standard Time, the key document leading to the implementation of standard time in the U.S., was released. In 1881, the railroad industry's General Time Convention (GTC), a group of officials involved in scheduling, took up the proposal for standardizing time and in 1883, convinced by the AMS report, decided to adopt SRT. The following year, a conference in Washington took up the proposal for international implementation.

The goals of the 1884 International Meridian Conference, were to agree on a common initial meridian (in consideration of the longstanding preference for the Greenwich meridian) and ultimately to standardize time worldwide. A globally recognized initial (prime) meridian had to be established because, unlike latitude, there is no obvious starting point for the meridian lines around the globe that specify east-west positions of longitude, and thus one had to be designated and agreed upon. Greenwich, England, site of the Royal Observatory, was already widely used by mariners, mapmakers, and navigators, and was the prime candidate. Its selection by the railroads also forestalled potential conflict between U.S. cities vying for the honor. International time zones were established according to the SRT system that was implemented in 1893, creating Universal Time (UT) based on the Greenwich meridian, which became "time zero." The twenty-four standard meridians marked the centers of the zones around the globe.

Three frames from a motion picture
Fast Mail, Northern Pacific Railroad,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., James White, producer,
July or August 1897.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Map
Burlington Route,
Rand McNally and Company,
Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, 1892.
Railroad Maps, 1828-1900

Sun clock sculpture
Meridian Hill Park. Sun Clock at Meridian Hill Park I,
Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
ca. 1920-50.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

American Memory collections are rich in materials on railroads.

American Memory collections also have materials on time and industries.

The Daguerreotype

Man in a work apron and hat
Occupational Portrait of a Latch Maker, circa 1850-60.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the first practical process of photography, was born near Paris, France, on November 18, 1789. A successful commercial artist and a skilled theatrical designer, Daguerre began experimenting with the effects of light upon translucent paintings in the 1820s. In 1829, he formed a partnership with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) to improve the process that Niépce had developed to take the first permanent photograph in 1826-27.

After several years of experimentation, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself—the daguerreotype. In 1839, he formally announced the process and he and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government. They published a booklet describing the process.

The daguerreotype gained popularity quickly; by 1850, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City alone. The Library's Daguerreotype Collection consists of more than 700 carefully preserved daguerreotypes. Items of particular interest include a series of portraits of African Americans who emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, a series of Occupational Photographs, a collection of Architectural Scenes and Outdoor Views, and the architectural daguerreotypes of John Plumbe. The majority of the daguerreotypes in the collection are portraits including the Library's earliest photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

Long view of the U.S. Capitol
United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.,
John Plumbe, photographer, circa 1846.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864

Advertising flyer
Root’s Daguerreotype Talbotype, Stereoscopic & Crayon Portrait & Miniature Gallery…,
Chandler, printer,
Philadelphia, 1855.
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

The Library of Congress has both a rich collection of daguerreotypes as well as materials on the process and its history.