How did trains standardize time in the United States? – William Heuisler

How did trains standardize time in the United States? – William Heuisler


Translator: Andrea McDonough
Reviewer: Bedirhan Cinar The development and spread of railroads across the United States brought a wave of changes to American life. During the railroad boom, thousands of jobs were created, new towns were born, trade increased, transportation was faster, and the overall landscape of the nation transformed. But, perhaps the most interesting change of all is the least known: the establishment of standard time. Today, we know if it is 6:28 a.m. in Los Angeles, it is 9:28 a.m. in New York, 2:28 p.m. in London, 5:28 p.m. in Moscow, and 10:28 p.m in Tokyo. No matter where you are, the minute and second are the exact same. But, before the railroads, there was no need for a national or global clock, and each town kept its own local time. So when it was 12 noon in Chicago, it was 12:07 p.m. in Indianapolis, 11:50 a.m. in St. Louis, and 11:27 a.m. in Omaha. This worked just fine when the only modes of travel were horses or steamboats, but it became incredibly problematic when railroads came along. How can you keep a train schedule when each town has its own time? And how do you prevent collisions or accidents on the tracks if train conductors are using different clocks? It doesn’t really make sense to leave a station at 12:14 p.m., travel for 22 minutes, and arrive at 12:31 p.m. In order to eliminate that confusion, the railroads of the United States and Canada instituted standard time zones on November 18, 1883 at noon. It allowed the railroad companies to operate more effectively and reduce deadly accidents. The American public, however, was not so quick to embrace this new change, as many cities continued to use their own local time. Resistance was so strong that, in some towns, clocks would show both the local time and the railway time. Imagine this conversation: “Pardon me, sir. Do you have the time?” “Why yes, which do you need? It’s 12:13 local time and 12:16 railway time.” Ultimately, the logic of keeping a standard time prevailed, and the United States government made time zones a matter of law with the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918. Since then, there have been numerous changes to the time zones, but the concept of standard time has remained. But, the United States was actually not the first to develop standard time. The first company to implement the use of standard time was the Great Western Railway in 1840 in Britain, and by 1847, most British railways were using Greenwich Mean Time, or G.M.T. The British government made it official on August 2, 1880 with the Statutes, or Definition of Time, Act. But, while Britain may have been the first to establish standard time, it is Asia and the islands of the South Pacific that enjoyed the first hour of each new day. The International Date Line passes through the Pacific Ocean on the opposite side of the Earth from the Prime Meridian in Greenwich where, thanks to trains, standard time was first used. Trains have evolved over the years and remain a prominent form of transportation and trade throughout the world. And, from the New York City subways to the freight trains traveling across the Great Plains, to the trolleys in San Francisco, they all know exactly what time it is. And, thanks to them, we do too!

100 Comments on "How did trains standardize time in the United States? – William Heuisler"


  1. When it comes to dates, as long as you keep the MM in the middle and the year to 4 numbers I'm happy.

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  2. there is many offset time zones in the world, most are like Newfoundland and are offset by 30 minutes but some are only 15 minutes!

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  3. forvo . com / word/greenwich/

    You can hear the standard pronunciation at Forvo above. It is pronounced "grenich" if one were to spell it as it is pronounced — certainly not an intuitive pronunciation, but neither are many British toponyms.

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  4. I just hate being french canadian and everyone else around me say greenwich because it is written like that but I heard it for the first time by an english speaking person and it sounded wrong to me

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  5. A lot of Chinese people mispronounce Greenwich because of the Chinese transliteration, which has a W sound in it.

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  6. It's not about what language you come from. The "greenich" pronounciation is a custom, but anyone who doesn't know it would just say "greenwich" because that's what's written. I remember in London getting lost for a few minutes because I didn't get that "lister square" was leicester square". 😀

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  7. I think it's more a case of the literal way Americans say the date. They might say "It was October 31st, 2012," whereas I might say "It was the 31st of October, 2012." so you can see where the order comes from. Don't get me wrong though, I do think DD/MM/YYYY makes a LOT more sense.
    Interestingly though, in (I think) Japan, they write YYYY/MM/DD which I guess makes more sense because we tend to write bigger numbers on the left in other systems, like in numbers or in time.

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  8. How about we ALL change to computer file time?
    Year/Month/Day
    That way all our files would come up in time order.

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  9. You mean year/month/day right, so it's from most significant to least significant, and easily sorted. 🙂

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  10. That is just not logic. How is the day the least significant? Everyone knows what year it is, pretty much a constant, at least for 365 days, people don't need to be reminded first what year it is. The day is the one that changes the most, which is why it should be the first. This is like saying we should say the time is 11:08 AM, meaning 11 minutes past 8 in the morning. IT MAKES NO SENSE. Day/Month/Year is and will always be the most logical form of writing a date to exist.

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  11. or let's all do it like the japanese:
    year/month/date
    makes sense, since you can continue that line with /hours/minutes/seconds/…

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  12. no, that's how everyone who doesn't know the pronounciation of the word is pronouncing greenwhich
    the pronounciation of the city edinburgh (capital of scotland, you might've heard about it) is also completely different than its spelling would imply

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  13. I think mcmuttons means a slightly different "significant" than you do. Significant as in if one was changed, how big would the impact be on the overall time.
    Regardless, your example fails sadly. "The day is the one that changes the most, which is why it should be the first. This is like saying we should say the time is 11:08 AM, meaning 11 minutes past 8 in the morning." The quote is true, but you go against it in the rest of your comment.
    Also, you Americans shold drop AM/PM. Too complicated.

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  14. AS I said later in another comment i'm french canadian so everyone I know just pronounce it the way it spelled because its what makes more sense I mean why would you had so many useless letter in a word

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  15. well actually the hour would go first because there are only 24 hours in a day then minutes because there are more minutes than hours and finally seconds, and thats how we tell time except most people dont say the seconds

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  16. There are 3 types of date writing not just two, so you left out year/month/day. This is a common mistake. People tend to think what they use are the correct one and ignore the others. You should learn some more before condemn others view of the same thing. This is called open minded.

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  17. 0:38 — except during the period where every country switches between DST and standard time, at which moment no one knows what time is anywhere…

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  18. I'm not judging i'm saying that normally english is not that stupid and when you see something it pronouce that way

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  19. you said it doesn't make sense for a word to have so many unnecessary many letters
    that is a judgment (definition of dict.cc: judgment […] 5. the opinion formed)
    besides that, we're talking about a name here
    names are generally not subject of spelling, because spelling of names don't have to follow any rules whatsoever, so give it a rest already
    stop pronouncing it greenwich. it's pronounced as said in the vid, whether you like it or not

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  20. dude that's YOUTUBE comment section and i'm french i didn't really care if most people don't understand what I meant and you are the one taking it too seriously

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  21. Uhhhh…. Just because American's use M/D/Y doesnt make it right.. hahahaha..
    Its just logical to have the day come before the month.

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  22. Oh great! I'm really glad to see that you extended the ethnocentric theme beyond just the title and completely failed to mention that the inventor of Standard Time was a Canadian named Sanford Fleming. Hail Caesar, long live the American Empire!

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  23. Theres something that you all are missing. The months are not numbers ,but do have an order which we sometimes relate to with a number. Too which is logical on showing the date in some kind of numerical order… would be based on opinion or perhaps situation.

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  24. Why does that even matter? He also didn't mention who invented the clock. The video is about how trains standardise time in the United States.

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  25. Thank you for replying back. I would agree with you on what you say but, Metric looks nice if what your dealing with is just whole numbers;and what I mean by that is when you deal with fractions of any number you run into the same problem as any base counting system. Example, base 12 might be easier to understand quarters, thirds and halves: 3/12 , 6/12, 9/12. Where as base 10 may be more difficult Example, 2.5, 5, 7.5

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  26. I don't mean to discurage you but, any kind of number amount that is given for weight gain or lose is a generalization and is no way accurate to any single person. Measuring grams is the same as measuring ounces also in that you need the proper measuring tool.

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  27. I find this problematic since everybody writes it in different orders.
    Can't we people just agree on something?

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  28. Still, base 10 is easier to understand than the multitude of bases for the imperial system. Also, the fractions for base ten are simple since they are representitive of their percentage/decimal value.
    The arguement that the metric system is not more simple than the imperial system is nonesense as the metric system is scalable and was designed to use basic orders of magnitude, whereas the latter does/is not.
    The only thing that keeps the imperial system alive are its stubborn American supporters.

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  29. Sorry to nitpick, but ISO8601 recommends using hyphens (YYYY-MM-DD) and allows no separators (YYYYMMDD) but never slashes.

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  30. The statement at 0:48 is somewhat false. Not all places share the same minute as other timezones. Newfoundland, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Burma, the Marquesas, as well as parts of Australia use half-hour deviations from standard time, and some nations, such as Nepal, and some provinces, such as the Chatham Islands, use quarter-hour deviations.

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  31. well idk how it is said in other countries but here we would say it is February 16, 2013 meaning 2/16/2013 which makes sense as a translation between each other. How do you say it where you are from?

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  32. Neither base system is "easier" is the point im making. Eventually all base systems run into harder and more complicated calculations. You can try this for yourself with any norepeating decimal. If you grew up learning one way, of course you may find it easier for a certain system; but have you tried them all? There are systems other than Imperial or Metric that are being used. B.T.W. whats your beef with America?

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  33. hmm… that depends on what you mean by "bigger", cause there are more days than months; or there's more time in a single month then a single day.

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  34. A standardized time system was first used by British railways on December 11, 1847, when they switched from local mean time, which varied from place to place, to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It was also given the name railway time reflecting the important role the railway companies played in bringing it about. The vast majority of Great Britain's public clocks were standardised to GMT by 1855.

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  35. Well "bigger" isn't probably the best word to use. But a month is takes more time than a day, and a year more than a month. Using month/day/year is like using minutes/seconds/hours instead of hours/minutes/seconds.

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  36. Here it would be said 16th February, 2013. 16/2/2013.
    How do you say how much time a movie took? 2min 3seconds and 1hour? no, it doesn't really make sense does it? So for us putting the shortest (days or seconds) in the middle (between months and years/minuter and hours) just seams odd.

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  37. it gets trippy when you think about what exactly time is. "and they all know exactly what time it is" lol time is made up by humans!!!

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  38. I came across this fact when I was writing a flashback in a short story, which I wrote during my wood shop class in middle school (because it was a joke of a class), involving someone showing up somewhere and having no idea of the date, time, or place, and whether their watch was accurate. IT took place in the late 1800s, I think, and it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea when standard timezones were established, so I looked it up instead of finishing my story. I like this sort of thing.

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  39. I don't have anything against America, in fact I love the States. I just believe that the metric system is preferable to the imperial one, whose main user is Americans, thus they are to "blame" for its continuing existence. I could blame the UK as well, but they tried to convert, and are now metric-imperial.

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  40. I hope you don't feel that I don't respect your opinion, it's just that changing 300 hundred million plus people thinking could bring about quite a bit of chaos. To sum my idea up I feel that it all comes down to how well someone can calculate. I mean is it just as easy to remember one number from another ex.0= freezing or 32= freezing?

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  41. the two systems must exist and the imperial should be retired from areas and produts, by steps. This would make people habitate with the metric system with time.

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  42. You are exactly right. That is the major issue. Standardizing tradition is very difficult, especially if its amongst many people.

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  43. I though that also standard time was need for the early morse code, since you had limited time to keep it on to put out and receive messages.

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  44. i MYSELF didn't expect you to do anything. i was just saying how i liked the standards we have and i wouldnt want to see it changed for cultural and historical reasons. the US does a fine job learning the metric system in US schools, which as you said is globalized. the US system isn't really of benefit to you unless you plan to live in the US.

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  45. US citizens not giving a fuck about the law of time zones because tradition? no wonder (cof cof metric system)

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  46. And here I thought people back then were better off with airships instead of trains. Not that they were popular back then.

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  47. the great western railway he says?

    there is only two ways of doing things
    the great western way and the wrong way

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  48. So why no mention of Sir Sandford Fleming? Scotish-Canadian credited inventor of standard time.

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  49. You forgot to mention the inventor of standard time, CANADIAN!!, Stamford Fleming who noticed the inconstancy on Canadian! Trains.
    Ya know, for a organization that’s half Canadian, TedEd is bias towards the U.S., if Canadian history is involved USE IT!!!😤

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  50. Too bad the same logic can't be used to abolish the pointlessness of Daylight Saving Time. That causes way more trouble than it saves, it has very much long since outlived whatever usefulness it might have once had.

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  51. China has no timezones, it's just one time zone.

    North Korea also has a unique timezone, because it wants to be special.

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  52. This is really cool! I wish more people could see this; it's such a shame that it took this channel so long to become popular.

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