The Day with Two Noons, and How Eastern Standard Time Came to Be

Many years ago, I was listening to a late-night radio show. Up came the topic of how the map of the world got divided up neatly into 24 segments, each of which registered the time on its clocks as different by one hour from the times in the adjacent segments.

                The show host – I believe it was Dick Summer of Boston’s WBZ  – noted that the job of laying out the world into those segments had been done by a little-known Russian cartographer by the name of Alex Andersrag.

                After an appropriate pause, he continued, “And that’s where we got the Alex Andersrag Time Band.”

                Boo! Hiss! My kind of groaner…one of the best I’ve ever heard.

                That sick pun came to mind recently when I read the real story of how time zones and standard times in America came to be. It was the work of a man who deserves to be remembered but whose name is virtually lost to history: Charles Ferdinand Dowd.

Charles Dowd

                Dowd graduated from Yale in 1853. He got married, moved to upstate New York and eventually settled in Saratoga Springs. He and his wife Miriam, a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, bought the Temple Grove Seminary in Saratoga Springs and taught there for 35 years.

                According to one of his biographers, Dowd “liked order, and he disliked confusion.” He was also a frequent railroad traveler, and he knew that there was little order and much confusion that stemmed from the difference between local times and railroad times. It wasn’t only confusing. It was life-threatening.

                In 1853, the year Dowd graduated from Yale, a story in the New York Times laid out the problem that Dowd would eventually solve. Two express trains, speeding in opposite directions, had collided head-on and killed several passengers.

“Our columns groan again with reports of wholesale slaughter by railroad trains…the variation of a time-piece is assigned as the immediate occasion of the meeting…Has human ingenuity been exhausted, in devising the means – or has the power of Society proved unable to enforce by law such regulations as will prevent these horrible holocausts to the Railway demon?”

                What was the problem? There was no uniform standard of time. In every place in the country, they determined noon of the day astronomically. It was 12 noon when the sun was directly overhead. Just as one example, in Connecticut there was eight minutes’ difference registering on town clocks between the Rhode Island border to the east and the New York border to the west.

Every railroad in the country operated on its own sweet time when constructing its timetables. If there were any differences, transfer-seeking passengers had to figure them out. It was a nuisance, but as the case of the 1853 crash sadly proved, it could often be a fatal nuisance. And especially since the end of the Civil War and the driving of the Golden Spike in 1869, thousands of railroad lines crisscrossed the nation. Timely connections and uniform timetables became an even more critical need.

Charles Dowd, the order-obsessed philosophy professor from Saratoga Springs, set out to do it. He already had some technology-based tools at his disposal. In New York, citizens had been able to do away with reliance on sundials in 1877, thanks to Western Union. At noon every day, a telegraph operator at the Naval Observatory in Washington would tap a key. That signaled an electromagnet in New York, tripping a lever that released a large copper ball atop a pole at the Western Union Telegraph Building in New York. The ball descended, and New Yorkers knew that it was noontime.

That was nice for New York. But what about the rest of the country?

Dowd’s first try at an all-encompassing system failed. He made more than eight thousand calculations along five hundred rail lines, and he came up with a uniform national time. It didn’t work. The four-hour time difference between the coasts was too great. So he went back to work and drew up a set of four time zones, each fifteen degrees of longitude in width.

That was in 1863, when he presented it to his students at the seminary. Six years later, he proposed the system to a group of railway executives in New York City. And for the next fourteen years he lobbied and badgered anyone who would listen – engineers, astronomers, college professors, magazine and newspaper edits.  Dowd wasn’t in it for the money. He just wanted to solve the problem.

Fortunately, he’d found a champion. John Toucey was general manager of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. His line’s Grand Central Depot was the nation’s busiest. In 1883, a full 20 years after Dowd had devised the system, Toucey introduced it as a resolution before the General Railway Time Convention. The resolution consolidated the 50 existing time zones into four.

The new system became effective on Sunday, November 18, 1883. It helped that New York mayor Franklin Edson was on board, decreeing that all clocks comply with the new railway time. That day became known as “the day with two noons,” because the ball atop the Western Union Telegraph Building would descend twice. First it would signal 12:00 noon local time; then it would signal 12:00 Eastern Standard Time.

At 9:00 a.m. New York time on that day, the superintendent of Western Union’s Time Telegraph subsidiary stopped the pendulum of his regulator clock. Time stood still for three minutes and 58 seconds, when the pendulum was reactivated. Ten o’clock came and went, and then twelve noon New York time the ball dropped.  Four minutes later the ball dropped again. It was noon, Eastern Standard Time.

The U.S. Attorney General, Benjamin Brewster, tried to get in on the act. He stated that such a revision that affected the entire nation needed congressional approval. But the superintendent of the Naval Observatory ignored him and adopted the railway standard as the nation’s official timekeeper.

The New York Times covered the story of the new standard time on page five, remarking that “All intelligent persons will ask why the change was not made years ago.” And that very day its front page headline blared “TERRIBLE RAILWAY COLLISION IN ILLINOIS.”

Charles Dowd, the man who had made it all possible, was nearly forgotten. That’s because he didn’t write the history. He tried, but the man who told the story and claimed the credit was William Allen, an engineer and editor of the Travelers’ Official Railway Guide for the United States.  

At least Allen pointed out that Dowd’s original proposal in 1870 to his organization was “the first published proposition of which I have any knowledge.”  And somewhere along the way, Dowd received annual passes from all major railways, in recognition of his claim of designing the country’s time zones.

Dowd’s life ended tragically. At age 80, in November 1904, he went to visit a sick friend. As he was walking home, he was killed by a train as he crossed North Broadway in Saratoga Springs.  Delaware and Hudson train number 6, running late and speeding around a corner at 30 miles an hour just two blocks from the station, ran over him.

Saratoga Springs’ city fathers eventually recognized Charles Dowd’s towering achievement some years later when, near the site of the fatal accident, they placed a monument to his name: a sundial.

(Note: My source for this story is The New Yorkers: 31 Remarkable People, 400 Years, and the Untold Biography of the World’s Greatest City, by Sam Roberts.)

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