• A Short History of Modern Time Zones

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    If you did some pleasant traveling around our beautiful country and beyond this past summer, you likely passed through one or more time zones. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t think too much about it, other than to set you watch back or forward. But, of course, it has not always been so easy to travel through time.

    As recently as the late 19th century, travelers were pretty much on their own when it came to knowing the time in any given location. Local time in those days was calibrated to the noon position of the sun, which produced a variety of time standards and considerable confusion, especially for those going by train.

    Railroad companies (of which there were nearly 500 in those days) each had their own time system, typically based on the local time of one of its cities. As a result, for example, passengers traveling between Portland, Maine, and Buffalo, N.Y., had to traverse four different time zones.

    The person credited with proposing a solution to this dilemma was Charles F. Dowd. An 1856 graduate of Yale University, he and his wife, Harriet, were co-principals of Temple Grove Ladies Seminary (now Skidmore College) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His greatest contribution, however, for which he deserves a place in history, is his proposal for standardized, multiple time zones in North America.

    Dowd studied the solar times at railroad stations across the country and, converting the longitudes of some 8,000 locations, found differences of up to four hours. This led to the concept of four-time zones, each spanning 15 degrees of longitude. But that was the easy part.

    When Dowd presented his proposal to a group of railway superintendents in 1869, he met with something less than enthusiasm. They were more interested in competitive rates and speed than with cooperative time agreements. Furthermore, major cities seemed to take pride in their local times and were not anxious to compromise. The local times in Albany, New York and Montreal, for example, differed by only one minute, and yet the cities were unwilling to give up their own times. And so, his concept languished.

    But Dowd persevered and, in 1883, a plan modeled on his proposal was finally adopted. He also worked on an international standard time system. Countries around the world eventually adopted the concept of time zones. Tragically, Dowd was killed at a train crossing in Saratoga Springs in 1904, but at his 50th Yale reunion, his classmates dubbed him “Father Time” for his system of standard time zones that affected the entire world.

    So that is the background of the time zones you may have passed through this past summer in your travels. But we seniors know there are other zones of time. There are, for example, the time zones of our lives: the zones of childhood and formal education – the zones of our profession and family – and the zones of retirement, with all the opportunities that it has to offer.

    Just as the highways are continuous, as they traverse from one physical time zone to the next, so are the paths we take through the time zones of our lives. Just as each geographic time zone has new and exciting things to enjoy, so it is with the time zones of our lives. I hope you are making the most of the present zone you are in and that you are enjoying the journey.