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Montana Viewpoint
“GOD’S TIME” AND RAILROAD TIME
October 1, 2007

In a couple of weeks we will once again turn our clocks back an hour as we switch from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time. And just for the heck of it, what is standard time, anyway? Well, it was originally called Standard Railway Time, and therein lies a tale.

Standard time was the brainchild of the railroads. Its basic purpose was to be able to create train schedules using one time across a large area instead of using the hodge-podge of some 87 different time zones across America. It was not a universally popular idea, and it is regarded by some as the first instance in which industry usurped the powers of elected governments.

While time doesn’t change, the way we measure it does, and people have gotten pretty touchy about those changes. Imagine the commotion when Pope Gregory XIII issued a Papal Bull, or order, that erased eleven days on the Church’s calendar to bring it into conformity with solar time. October 4th, 1582 became October 15, 1582 overnight.

Under the inaccurate Julian calendar, in use since Julius Caesar’s time, the spring equinox occurred earlier and earlier in the calendar year. Since the equinox is the solar event that the date of Easter is measured from, Easter kept moving backward in calendar time, too. The new calendar system was called the Gregorian calendar, and that’s what we use today. The Eastern Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar, and their Easter is celebrated on a different date than most Christians’.

Most Catholic nations adopted the change readily. Protestant nations, rejecting the idea predominantly because it was Catholic, held off changing to the Gregorian calendar for centuries. When England finally changed calendars in 1752 there were reports of riots because some people thought that their lives were being shortened by eleven days.

On this earth cultures determine time by the occurrence of celestial events; generally the phases or position of either the sun or the moon. Some cultures, the Maya in particular, worshipped time and measured it far more accurately and far earlier than the European culture.

Calendar systems based on the moon were inaccurate as far as keeping in synch with nature and had to be adjusted frequently. Solar calendar systems are more accurate but still have to be adjusted, which the Gregorian calendar does by adding an extra day in leap years. As the sun determines the number of days in a year, it determines time in the day, noon being the moment when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. Because the earth turns, true noon in one town is not true noon in the next town to the west, so it was natural for each town to measure its own time, which would differ from the next town to either the East or West.

When travel was by foot or horse these local times were not such a big deal, but as rail travel shortened travel times over distance (New York to Philadelphia from seven days to seven hours) it became a problem. Scheduling a train was difficult for the railroads and confusing for the passengers and the railroads wanted to do something about it.

After an industry conference, the railroads adopted Railroad Standard Time. The change from local time to Railroad Time took place throughout America on November 18, 1883. Most areas adopted railroad time immediately, the Congress of the United States did not.

Many cities, including Washington, DC, rebelled at being dictated to by the railroads, and kept their local time for many years after 1883. Congress waited 25 years before they made Standard Time Federal law on March 19, 1918, and even then there were places that continued to run business on their own local time, merely replacing disobedience to the railroads with disobedience of the law.

While some have viewed the foisting of Standard Railroad Time on the American public as industry’s first usurpation of the role of representative democracy, it may be more to the point that big business has a more pragmatic outlook than government or the citizenry. It may also be that industry, unlike Congress, doesn’t worry about facing the anger of the electorate after voting to abolish “God’s time” and replace it with Railroad time.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620

jim@jimelliott.org