Our present time zones (Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Eastern Standard) descend from railroads and the need to coordinate traffic across vast systems that developed in the United States after the Civil War. The official date for the U.S. adoption of standard time zones was November 18, 1883. But the railroads changed the ways we thought about time before that.Time was difficult to measure and assess with its variation across so many new networks that railroads established. An early device for measuring time, a sort of time map, was developed to aid such calculations. Here is an early example from A. J. Johnson, Johnson’s New illustrated (steel plate) family atlas : with physical geography and with descriptions geographical, statistical, and historical… (New York: Johnson and Ward, 1864): 


With Washington, D.C., in the center of the time atlas, a series of concentric rings of time extend outward through the world. If the time in Washington was 12:00 noon, then the time in Dover, Delaware, was 12:06 p.m., London, England, 5:08 p.m., Vera Cruz, Mexico, 10:43 a.m. All sorts of U.S. places appeared on this time atlas side by side with Paris, London, Berlin, Calcutta, Constantinople, Rome, and the Cape of Good Hope: including Little Rock, Nashville, Galveston, Omaha, and Iowa City, among others. This diagram of time was also a statement on geography–these places were important. Of course, one could not travel on an American railroad from Dover, Del., to St. Petersburg, Russia. But the imagined space could be traversed and the network, however imperfect, was rapidly being assembled. If one could travel from Dover, Del., to Santa Fe or San Francisco, then the rapid expansion of the rail network had wider implications that Americans could easily conjure up in their projections of what lay ahead in the future. Railroads put out elaborate time tables in the 1850s to organize their schedules for passengers. At first for many lines under one hundred miles, the time tables were simple affairs–a list of a dozen depots and their stop times. On railroads running north and south, such as the Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore, there was little variation in time. But as railroads broke through the Allegheny Mountain barrier to the west, such as the Baltimore and Ohio, time tables became considerably more complex.

The 1850s marked a major shift. Americans had to read these tables and convert them as well into prices and financial costs. Here’s the rate table for the Baltimore and Ohio in 1858:


[National Archives, Record Group 92, U.S. Military Railroad Records]

Time tables were equally complex. With over two hundred miles of rail to the Pittsburgh, the B and O represented one of the first major arteries to the Ohio River and the west. The Pacific railroad, though not begun until 1864, was discussed in the 1850s as the logical next step. All sorts of implications flowed from the idea of proximity and time. “If it had been built ten years ago,” one supporter of the transcontinental railroad wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, “we should not have had a Southern Rebellion. If finished a year since, the whole road would have already been [used] in transporting troops and supplies.”  

Proponents of the transcontinental spoke also of the closing of distance and time as compelling in its own right. “In fifty hours this Capitol can be reached from the most remote parts of the country, east of the Rocky Mountains,” one Congressman explained in 1854. If the nation would construct the Pacific Railroad, the trip to San Francisco would take just six days and, he pointed out, the “entire circuit of the earth” could be traversed in 93 days. Indiana built 1,400 miles of railroad by 1856 and another 1,000 miles were projected before the close of the decade. Indiana’s Congressman cited the ingenuity of the people as the first reason for Indiana’s transformation from “an unbroken wilderness, inhabited only by the red man of the forest.” But closely and inextricably woven into his explanation was the railroad. The railroad made possible ingenuity’s promise. He was sure that “settlement and cultivation” would follow the railroad, and “civilization, enterprise, and wealth” would be the natural result. Such confidence came hand-in-glove with railroad expansion in these years and the widening sense that time could be mastered and controlled.

Long before time zones ordered and regularized the American landscape into discrete sections, the railroads actually created interfaces to their growing networks: elaborate time tables, rate tables, and time atlases for the public to visualize their place on the network and their relationship to others. These abstractions were an important break in how Americans thought of time and geography and of themselves.