Updated:
Original:
Year
1883
Month Day
November 18

Railroads create the first time zones

At exactly noon on this day, American and Canadian railroads begin using four continental time zones to end the confusion of dealing with thousands of local times. The bold move was emblematic of the power shared by the railroad companies.

The need for continental time zones stemmed directly from the problems of moving passengers and freight over the thousands of miles of rail line that covered North America by the 1880s. Since human beings had first begun keeping track of time, they set their clocks to the local movement of the sun. Even as late as the 1880s, most towns in the U.S. had their own local time, generally based on “high noon,” or the time when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. As railroads began to shrink the travel time between cities from days or months to mere hours, however, these local times became a scheduling nightmare. Railroad timetables in major cities listed dozens of different arrival and departure times for the same train, each linked to a different local time zone.

Efficient rail transportation demanded a more uniform time-keeping system. Rather than turning to the federal governments of the United States and Canada to create a North American system of time zones, the powerful railroad companies took it upon themselves to create a new time code system. The companies agreed to divide the continent into four time zones; the dividing lines adopted were very close to the ones we still use today.

Most Americans and Canadians quickly embraced their new time zones, since railroads were often their lifeblood and main link with the rest of the world. However, it was not until 1918 that Congress officially adopted the railroad time zones and put them under the supervision of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Mass suicide at Jonestown

On this day in 1978, Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones leads hundreds of his followers in a mass murder-suicide at their agricultural commune in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana. Many of Jones’ followers willingly ingested a poison-laced punch while others were ...read more

Terry Waite released

Shiite Muslim kidnappers in Lebanon free Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite after more than four years of captivity. Waite, looking thinner and his hair grayer, was freed along with American educator Thomas M. Sutherland after intense negotiations by the United Nations. Waite, ...read more

Sandy Koufax retires

On November 18, 1966, Sandy Koufax, the ace pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, retires from baseball. He was just 30 years old, and he was retiring after a great season–he’d led the Dodgers to a National League pennant and won his third Cy Young award. But he had chronic ...read more

Lincoln travels to Gettysburg

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln boards a train for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver a short speech at the dedicationof a cemetery of soldiers killed during the battle there on July 1 to July 3, 1863. The address Lincoln gave in Gettysburg became one of the most ...read more

Battle of the Somme ends

On this day in 1916, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig calls a halt to his army’s offensive near the Somme River in northwestern France, ending the epic Battle of the Somme after more than four months of bloody conflict. With the French under heavy siege at Verdun since ...read more