Episode 918: The Day Of Two Noons : Planet Money People didn't always know what time it was. But in the nineteenth century, a high school principal, a scientist, and a railroad bureaucrat synchronized the nation.
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Episode 918: The Day Of Two Noons

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Episode 918: The Day Of Two Noons

Episode 918: The Day Of Two Noons

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SALLY HELM, HOST:

Here is something that I learned recently. In the air above us, up at 35,000 feet, it is the same time everywhere.

DICK HENRY: Universal Time, which is the time at the Greenwich meridian, is used all around the planet Earth today by every single airline and air force in the world.

HELM: This is Dick Henry. He's an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. And he said, think about it. There are all these planes flying all over the Earth at hundreds of miles an hour, and you don't want to get confused by time zones when you're trying to keep them from crashing into each other.

Dick has talked to his friend Steve Hanke about this for years. Steve's an economist, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins. And he says it is not just pilots who need Universal Time. Investors need it, too.

STEVE HANKE: You can trade 24 hours a day, almost around the clock in gold, currencies, stocks and everything else under the sun. And those are all time-stamped using Universal Time.

HELM: Hanke and Henry were telling me about all this because they have this little proposal.

HENRY: Yeah, Steve and I want to abolish the time zones.

HELM: No more time zones.

HENRY: We want 24-hour world time, everybody on the same clock.

HELM: You're fully serious about this. Like, is this a serious proposal?

HANKE: Oh, my goodness.

HENRY: Yeah.

HANKE: Of course it's a serious proposal.

HELM: If it's 10 o'clock in New York, it is 10 o'clock in Shanghai and Sydney and Nairobi. It is 10 o'clock everywhere. Hanke and Henry have also designed a whole new efficient standardized calendar, the Hanke-Henry permanent calendar.

HENRY: It's Hanke-Henry time and calendar.

HELM: It's rigged up with an extra week every five or six years so that the calendar is standard year to year, like January 1 is always a Monday. They say, come on; we waste so much time readjusting calendars year to year. It's unnecessary.

HANKE: What would happen if the Hanke-Henry calendar were adopted? Oh, my goodness, there'd be a couple of years of bumps and grinds as people readjusted their schedules. But then we'd have it at an absolute optimum, and it would never, ever change for the rest of human history.

HELM: This is very hard for me to imagine - two guys changing the way time works for everybody forever. And yet, about 150 years ago, there was another guy, the Hanke-Henry of his age, who decided, I am going to completely change the way time works for everybody in the United States. And everybody in the United States is still living on his clock today.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "YOU GOT ME STARTED")

HELM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Helm. Time as we know it in the U.S. today began on a single day in 1883. It happened then because this new technology, the railroad, was completely transforming the world and creating, in all kinds of ways, the world we live in now. Today on the show, what time is it? And why?

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE SONG, "YOU GOT ME STARTED")

HELM: Can I start by having you just introduce yourself?

ALEXIS MCCROSSEN: Sure. I'm Alexis McCrossen. I'm a professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

HELM: Can you tell me about sort of your background in time?

MCCROSSEN: My background in time.

HELM: (Laughter).

MCCROSSEN: Well, I was born.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCROSSEN: I lived.

(LAUGHTER)

HELM: She was born. She lived. And eventually, she wrote a book about the history of timekeeping in the United States. And we're going to start this story in the early 1800s. The concept of time in the early 1800s is much looser than it is for us today. Some watches at the time didn't even have minute hands. People are mostly farmers, living local lives governed by the sun. If they need to travel, they'd probably catch a stagecoach. And they'd know, like, oh, I need to get to the stagecoach depot in the morning. But...

MCCROSSEN: Stagecoaches kept very loose schedules. They did not leave precisely at 9 o'clock at the top of the hour. They rang the bell. They let people know, we're about to leave. They hung around. They took off very slowly because nobody's timekeeping was precise.

HELM: Yeah, there were clocks. But every clock in town showed a slightly different time. But gradually, life starts to speed up. Steamships, factories, the mail - it comes all the time now. People need to coordinate more. So in each town, they'd agree, OK, this particular clock shows the official local time for our town.

But, like, how many local times were there?

MCCROSSEN: How many towns in America were there? How many places were there?

HELM: There were 23 local times in Indiana, 27 in Illinois, 38 in Michigan.

RICHARD WHITE: It switches every few minutes that each small community is going to have a different sun time by 10 minutes, five minutes, three minutes.

HELM: This is Richard White. He's a historian. He wrote a book about railroads. And railroads are going to become the key part of this story. For all of human history before trains, the fastest anybody could travel over land was the speed of a horse. But then, with railroads, that suddenly changes. Before, it could take a month to go from New York to Chicago. And by the 1850s, you can do it in two days.

And on that journey, a train would roll through, you know, maybe hundreds of different local times. Clearly, this time world is not built for trains. I mean, obviously, it's confusing if you're riding on the train. And also, it's just dangerous. There were a couple cases where people running the trains got confused about the time, and trains crashed into each other. So the railroads are like, yikes, we have got to find a way to coordinate this among ourselves. And they come up with a system.

WHITE: They met twice a year and arranged their schedules. And what they did is each train ran on its own time. If you were on the New York Central line, you'd set the time to Albany, N.Y. And no matter what time it was in the exact place the train stopped along the way, it's always New York time.

HELM: So each train was like - it was like the train itself had a time zone, almost.

WHITE: Yeah, the train is a travelling time zone.

HELM: Was that confusing for passengers?

WHITE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: It's very confusing for passengers. If you get off of a railroad car in a place like Buffalo, what you would do is look up, and you would see three or four different clocks. It would be much like we see in the airport now. In the airports, you can see, oh, it's that time in Copenhagen. It's that time in Athens. It's that time in Beijing.

But when you got off a train, you would see the time as it's set for the New York Central. You would see the time that is set for the trains coming out of Boston. You would see three or four different clocks, each of them giving you a different time, all of them different from the time on your watch...

HELM: (Laughter).

WHITE: ...And all of them different from the time where you were standing. And so you have to figure out what time to get on the train by those clocks.

HELM: At the center of this whole ridiculous time system is one man, William F. Allen. He's like the railroads' time czar. One of his jobs is secretary of the General Time Convention. It is his job to keep track of every schedule, every train-sized time zone - everything. And William F. Allen - he's not like a fancy railroad baron. He's more like a bureaucrat. A newspaper description of him from the time said that he had sort of a nervous vibe, that he looked like an Episcopal preacher because he wore this high-collared vest that buttoned up the front.

Passengers were complaining all the time about this really confusing system. Allen would have heard from them. They're saying, come on; can you please fix this? There's this high school principal named Charles Dowd who has become obsessed with changing the way we do time.

WHITE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we all know people like this. They just get fixated.

HELM: Dowd is like, all right, everybody, picture this. We divide the country into four sort of vertical areas, like zones. And then in each zone, it is the same time.

WHITE: And he tries to convince the railroads.

HELM: He writes letters back-and-forth with William F. Allen.

WHITE: Then the railroads blow him off.

HELM: Allen's like, no, everything's fine. But by the late 1870s, it's clear that this world where every town and every train has its own time just isn't working anymore. Trains are everywhere now. They're moving people from town to town, moving stuff all the way across the country. America is becoming less a collection of isolated towns and more one big country.

And around 1880, Allen hears from this one scientist who's saying, I got all these meteorologists all over the country trying to coordinate their observations. No one can figure out, like, who saw what shooting star when, so I have this idea. The railroads should just divide the country into a few sectors, each an hour apart, like zones - zones of time. And Allen finally decides, OK, the principal and the scientist are right. The era of every town having its own time is over. We need to standardize time, and I am the man to do it.

WHITE: He wants everybody to go on standard time. He wants to obliterate local time.

MCCROSSEN: So he engages in this vast campaign lobbying city councils and mayors and astronomical observatories and anybody who was involved in timekeeping.

HELM: Allen is not really consulting the general public on this. And, actually, the general public is mostly into it. There are some people who are skeptical. There was apparently one preacher in Tennessee who said, we follow God's time, not railroad time, and he smashed his watch on the pulpit with a hammer to make the point. But Allen isn't so concerned about that. This negotiation is happening in the various halls of power, and it's kind of a struggle for authority. Who has the authority to do something like this?

When Allen goes to the Boston railroads, they're like, we got our time from the Harvard Observatory, and that's what we're going to keep doing. Sorry, William F. Allen. So then Allen goes to Harvard, and the astronomers there are like, oh, yeah, standard time is a great idea; we'll adopt that. So then the Boston railroads and the city government of Boston agree to accept the new standard time. Then Allen goes to New York, and he says, look, New York; Boston did this. You better do it, too, or else the railroad time might come to be known as, quote, "Boston time." And New York is like, oh, my God, you're right; we are on board.

But the attorney general of the United States looks at Allen's plan and is like, wait; the railroads want to tell everyone in the whole country what time it is? No, only Congress can do something like that. And he orders all the government agencies to ignore Allen and the railroads. Government business is going to be happening on good, old-fashioned D.C. local time. But Allen does convince most of major cities in America to go with the railroads' plan for standard time.

MCCROSSEN: And he's successful. So I wouldn't necessarily call it railroad time. It's more like William F. Allen time.

HELM: He would love to hear you say that, I'm sure.

MCCROSSEN: I'm sure he would.

HELM: So here is Allen's plan. America is going to go from being a country where every town has its own time to a country where there are four different times. Call them time zones. And this new time era is going to begin on a single day.

WHITE: It's one of those things where you can give an exact date. November 18, 1883 we went on standard time.

HELM: Allen has already done a lot of legwork, like figuring out all the time changes. He redoes the train schedules, sends out notices. Newspapers are announcing this so people can get ready. And everyone - the observatories, the cities, the railroad companies - has agreed that local time will be abolished and the new era of standard time will begin on Sunday, November 18. The big moment arrives at noon, which raises a simple question. How do you tell everyone when it's the new noon? After the break, the Day of Two Noons.

Here was Allen's plan, or part of his plan, anyway. Observatories around the country would be watching the sun in the sky to determine the exact time. For example, the Naval Observatory in D.C. would be waiting for noon in the new Eastern time zone. At that moment, the observatory would send out a pulse over the Western Union telegraph line to announce it's noon. That pulse would run up to New York, where it activated something called a time ball.

There were time balls in a bunch of cities. And I love this part. If you have ever seen the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve, you have seen a time ball. That is, like, a callback to this 19th century technology. And what it was is there would be these balls that would sit up on, like, poles on the top of tall buildings, and they were designed to fall the instant a telegraph pulse hit, so everybody would know exactly what time it was. And they would gather around the time ball and set their watches. And ships at sea would see it fall and be like, set the chronometer, everyone. And that's the way that they coordinated time.

OK, so in New York, there was a time ball on the roof of the Western Union Building. So on the morning of November 18, that is where William Allen and his family went to wait for noon. People around the city were staring up at this time ball. And according to some newspapers, they were nervous. Like, is this going to work? Are there going to be train crashes?

MCCROSSEN: The noon of New York's local time arrived about four minutes before the noon of standard. So the bells of one church rang at the true local time.

HELM: And then, four minutes later, the pulse goes out from the Naval Observatory. Allen and his family see the time ball drop right next to them, and it's noon again. People would come to call this the Day of Two Noons. But this second noon wasn't just noon in New York. It was noon in Boston and Philadelphia and Charleston. And this new noon...

WHITE: It's our noon. It's - they are now on our time, you know, back to 1883. And just the same way there's an Eastern time zone and it's noon, and I'm sitting down in California, and it's going to be noon, it's noon - same time. We are living in William Allen's world.

HELM: William F. Allen realized that time is not just some objective measurement of where the sun is in the sky. It is also about the needs of society. And the railroads had created a society that needed a new kind of time. On the Day of Two Noons, by the way, everything went fine. Some people didn't even notice the change, didn't bother to change their clocks until weeks later. There are no records of trains colliding on the tracks. It turned out to be kind of like Y2K.

The next day, the attorney general, the one who had been so against William Allen's big-time plan - he was supposed to take the express train from D.C. to Philadelphia. Some people say this story is apocryphal, but the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time that the attorney general, quote, "walked down the platform leisurely with his watch in hand to find that he had arrived about 8 minutes and 12 seconds too late." The railroads had gone ahead without him.

And for a while, of course, there were a few holdouts against this system, as there always are. A few towns who just loved their local time and the federal government did not officially adopt standard time until 1918. They didn't technically abolish local time until 1966. But, of course, by then, everybody was already operating on standard time. As Richard White told me, the railroads had said, look; you can go by whatever time you want, but not if you want to make your train.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "ROAD TO CEVENNES")

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This is also a good week to follow PLANET MONEY on social media. There was lots of fun behind-the-scenes stuff up on our Twitter and Instagram, @planetmoney. You can see Sarah Gonzalez showing off the special blanket that she uses to stay warm in our very cold office. And Jacob and Ailsa got to meet comedian Ali Wong, who, as far as we know, is the only comedian ever to shout out PLANET MONEY in a Netflix special. Feel free to change that, comedians. Check it out, @planetmoney.

Today's show was produced by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and edited by Jacob Goldstein. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Special thanks to Rachel Cohn, Liza Yeager and our new intern Cynthia Betubiza (ph).

If you want to support PLANET MONEY, one great thing to do is to leave us a review in your podcast app. It helps other people find the show. I'm Sally Helm. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

By the way, there is a plaque commemorating William F. Allen's big accomplishment in Union Station in Washington, D.C. And Charles Dowd, the high school principal who seems to have come up with this idea first, was killed in 1904 when he was hit by a train.

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