#TIL: About Time: How the Railroads led to the creation of the first time-zones

By Yash Narain

Source: Atlas Obscura. (DINODIA PHOTOS/ALAMY)

In an era of pervasive standardisation and incessant cross country communication, it is well-nigh unimaginable to picture a world with each major city having its own local time. Yet, until several decades into the 19th century most cities set their clocks by the movement of the sun. Bombay, for instance, differed with neighbouring Poona by seven minutes.

Before the advent of high speed rail transport, travellers rarely encountered problems on this front. One could simply adjust their watch as one walked or rode in a carriage to a different town. The railways, however, began to shrink travel times from months or days to just a few hours, creating a scheduling nightmare for railroad operators. Timetables had to list down dozens of different arrival and departure times for the same train. Confusion and collisions went hand in hand. Over time, the need was felt to have standardized railway times and “Madras time” was often treated as the default. Madras lay between Calcutta and Bombay and the Madras Observatory ran the telegraph service that was used for synchronising railway station times. By the late 19th century, “Madras time” had gained popularity as the “Indian Standard Railway Time” or “Railway Time” and was effectively being used for railway timetables over the whole subcontinent including Lahore, Bombay and Calcutta.

A similar tale had unfolded in the UK, where most railway companies had started using “London time” or the time set at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich by the late 1840s. Across the globe in North America, powerful railroad companies took it upon themselves to carve the continent into four time-zones in 1883. All clocks were synchronised within a specific zone. The dividing lines strongly resembled the ones used today. The railroad industry’s plan was quickly adopted through the length of the continent though the proposed time-zone system was officially legitimised only after the passage of the 1918 Standard Time Act. Incidentally, this Act also established Daylight saving time in the US which has also had a huge impact on the world of mobility. But that’s a story for another TIL.

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