Standard Time: Order out of Chaos

On this day in which we annually shift our clocks back an hour, it’s worth taking another look at Mackinac Center President Lawrence Reed’s 2002 article examining how the shift to standardized time zones exemplified private sector initiative and innovation:

“In every city and town,” historian Stewart Holbrook wrote in his 1947 book, The Story of American Railroads, “the multiplicity of time standards confused and bewildered passengers, shippers, and railway employees. Too often, errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision.” . . . . Two men in particular are credited with “inventing” standard time and the time zones that define it. Prof. C. F. Dowd, principal of Temple Grove Seminar for Young Ladies at Saratoga Springs, New York, first suggested the general concept of four or more “time belts.” Later, William Frederick Allen, a railroad engineer, adapted and improved it and won acceptance for it by a crucial panel. In 1872, railroad officials from around the country met in Missouri to arrange summer passenger schedules. To address the time problem, they formed the General Time Convention, a permanent organization to work on a solution. Allen was named secretary and immediately set to work on making Dowd’s idea into a detailed proposal. In October 1883, the General Time Convention approved Allen’s plan. Government was not part of the picture at all; the Dowd/Allen solution to establish standardized time zones was conceived and fine-tuned to fruition entirely by the ingenuity of private citizens. The Convention chose the date of Nov. 18, 1883 for the adoption of the new system by virtually every railroad in the country. “Railroad time” quickly became the new “local time” everywhere-or at least almost everywhere. . . . . Private enterprise saw a dilemma as a problem to be solved. Governments dragged their collective feet and politicized it. As Yogi Berra would say, this sounds like “dÃ?jâ?¡ vu all over again.” What time is it? Thanks not to pretentious central planners but to creative entrepreneurs, no matter where you live, there’s been a uniform answer to that question for about a century.

Check out the whole piece for an interesting bit of history. It presents a stark contrast to the view I highlighted in a related post earlier this spring.