When did the United States start using time zones?

Answer: November 18, 1883

You can thank the United States railroad system for that exact date. Before we get to  November 1883, however, let’s back up for one second.

Background

Prior to this, the concept of calculating time was much easier - people simply used the sun. Whether it was a church steeple, city hall, or local school, communities set their clocks to noon when the sun was at its highest.  Everyone else who lived there used this de facto reference to set their own clocks. While the old sun-dial approach may have worked for a number a years when the United States economy was primary agrarian (aka there were more farmers and people didn’t travel as much), it ran into some problems during a little time period called, the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution began right around 1820, and with it came a shift away from manual labor-based industry to more technical, machine based manufacturing. As a result, production efficiency increased dramatically, ushering in the Gilded Age (basically a time of rapid economic growth, higher wages, and an overall better quality of life).

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Simultaneously, and most definitely related to the rise of industry, was the “transportation revolution”. Now that Americans were able to produce all these widgets, they needed ways to move themselves and the stuff they created. On the water, steamboats chugged up and down the Hudson river and along the east coast. On land, the railroads began to carry people further and faster West than ever before. THIS is when solar positioning as a method calculating time was debunked. Interestingly enough, individual commuter’s clocks being wrong when they showed up to a city in a different time zone was actually the least of their worries.

Huff Post – “To maintain a fairly accurate railroad schedule, a time standard was absolutely necessary. There were also major safety issues as many trains would share a single track and thus exact time was critical. A number of notable train crashes could have been averted if a better time system was adopted on a nationwide basis. It was in this spirt that on November 18, 1883 at high noon, all the major railroads set their clocks to a universal time standard and recognized the 5 railroad time zones.”

Ta-Da

So there you have it – the birth of time-zones in the United States. After the railroads began using this system, most of the country followed suit. (Citizens of Detroit rebelled and said the system was “dehumanizing” so they stuck with solar time for a while). Eventually, in 1918, the US Congress passed the Standard Time Act, which also established Day Light Savings, thus legalizing the process of setting and changing time. Half-way through the twentieth century, most of the rest of the world adopted the international time zone system, in which the planet is divided into 24 zones, each spaced roughly 15 degrees of longitude apart.

Wait, really?

Lastly, here are two fascinating facts about modern day time-zones:

1) China only has one time-zone. Yes, you read that right. Per the Atlantic, “China hasn't always had one time zone. In 1912, the year after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the newly empowered Republic of China established five different time zones in the country, ranging from five and a half to eight and a half hours past Greenwich Mean Time. But in 1949, as the Communist Party consolidated control of the country, Chairman Mao Zedong decreed that all of China would henceforth be on Beijing time for the purposes of national unity.”

2) France has the most time-zones. Again, yes, you did read that correctly. There’s no way right? Russia is roughly 5,700 miles wide, east to west, and it has eleven time zones so how could that be? Two words: Overseas Territories. France uses more time zones than any other country because they have territories scattered all around the world. Take a look at the map below.