Monday, January 18, 2016

Austen in Austin: Time Zones & Trains

This post originally appeared on Heroes, Heroines & History. I'm sharing it here because railroads and time zones have a part to play in my novella, One Word from You from the Austen in Austin Volume I Collection, which just released January 15 from White Fire!
Available here


What time is it? Throughout most of history, this question was answered according to the position of the sun. When the sun was overhead, everyone in the village knew it was noon—even before the technological advent of a town clock or pocket watch.

If one traveled, it was understood that an adjustment must be made to one’s personal timepiece.

But when the railroad came along, the times, as they say, started changing. Literally.
Time of Different Places at Noon Washington DC, from the Hamilton Railroad Timekeeper, 1911

By the early 1880’s, there were more than 300 time standards in the United States. In addition, each train station set its own time standard, and oftentimes, it didn’t match the local solar time of the town it was in. Even if the time standards did match, published timetables listed dozens of arrival and departure times for the same train, each referencing a different local time zone. The railway station at Chicago boasted multiple "official" clocks, each bearing a different time. Passengers and employees alike were frustrated and confused.
File:"Great Railway Station at Chicago-Departure of a Train.", ca. 1880 - NARA - 535752.jpg
"Great Railway Station of Chicago" around 1880. By Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To keep trains running, a more efficient, uniform system of telling time was required.

The railroad companies were so powerful at this time they could avoid the U.S. and Canadian governments and set their own time standards. They created over a hundred of them. As one can imagine, it didn’t help much.

In 1870, Charles Dowd proposed four time zones for North American railroads, but it wasn't until 1878 that the idea stuck, when a Scottish-born Canadian named Sandford Fleming (1827–1915) developed a system of worldwide time zones. (In addition to being known as the father of standardized time zones, he was a railway engineer, inventor, and the designer of the first Canadian postage stamp! No wonder he was knighted.) 
Sir Sandford Fleming.jpg
Sir Sandford Fleming. Public Domain
Fleming proposed the earth's division into 24 time zones, one for each hour of the day, spaced fifteen degrees longitude apart, since the earth spins fifteen degrees every hour.

Fleming’s idea met some resistance. It took five years for U.S. railroad companies to abandon the hundred time zones they'd been using to implement the handful Fleming proposed, but the change became official on November 18, 1883. The continental U.S. was divided into Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones—for railroad purposes, at least. 
Time Zones in the US and Canada 1886
1883, Public Domain
Many citizens in both countries followed the new time standards, since railroads were such an important part of their lives. However, not everyone did, and it took another 35 years for the use of Fleming's time zones to become mandatory in the U.S.

Perhaps one reason folks hesitated was a resistance to the tremendous power the railroads held. Others may have assumed the notion wouldn’t stick, or would prove too difficult to observe. After all, condensing 300 local times zones to 4 was no minor undertaking. Nevertheless, all U.S. states complied when Congress passed the Standard Time Act of 1918. 

Time still fluctuates for us. Time zones shift to form new borders, daylight savings is debated, and we still watch the sun. But next time you hear a train whistle, you’ll know that’s how the time was set.


Austen in Austin, Volume I

Four Texas-Set Novellas Based on Jane Austen's Novels

Available here
Discover four heroines in historical Austin, TX, as they find love--Jane Austen style. Volume 1 includes:

If I Loved You Less by Gina Welborn, based on Emma
A prideful matchmaker examines her own heart when her protégé falls for the wrong suitor.

Romantic Refinements by Anita Mae Draper, based on Sense and Sensibility
A misguided academy graduate spends the summer falling in love . . . twice.

One Word from You by Susanne Dietze, based on Pride and Prejudice
A down-on-her-luck journalist finds the story of her dreams, but her prejudice may cost her true love . . . and her career.

Alarmingly Charming by Debra E. Marvin, based on Northanger Abbey
A timid gothic dime-novel enthusiast tries to solve the mystery of a haunted cemetery and, even more shocking, why two equally charming suitors compete for her attentions.


Susanne Dietze is still pinching herself about the release of Austen in Austin, Vol. I. You can visit her on her website,


  1. That's extremely interesting information. I guess I never thought about how and when the standard time zones were set.

    Now if I could find whoever convinced our government we should adjust the time twice a year for no good reason, there might be a fight. Or at least a strong talking to. ;)

    1. I appreciate the extra sunlight on summer evenings, but oh, I do not enjoy it when the time changes. I never get an extra hour of sleep when we "fall back" like I think I will. :D


      :::bangs head:::

      There is EXACTLY the same amount of light and dark no matter what time they say it is. :::foams at the mouth slightly:::

      One of the Indian chiefs once said something like, "Only the white man would think you could make a blanket longer by cutting off one end and sewing to the other."

      (Not that I have a strong opinion on this issue or anything.)

  2. It really amazes me to think what a mess it used to be!

    1. I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been.

      Congratulations on your release, Deb! I'm so happy for you and Alarmingly Charming!

  3. Very cool, Susie. I didn't know this. Thank you for sharing it. And super congratulations on the novella!


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