A version of this essay was first published as a Viewpoint by the Mackinac Center in April 2002.
Remember the old Chicago song “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Well, if you had asked that question in Michigan about 120 years ago, you could have received 27 different answers. Since October is the month we turn our clocks back an hour, it is timely (pardon the pun) to recount how “standard time” brought order out of what was once an astonishing degree of confusion.
People in the continental United States have become so accustomed to four standardized time zones — Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific — that it is hard to believe that we ever kept time any other way. But until a crucial date in 1883, what time it was depended on the nearest city or town. The time of day was a purely local matter, determined by the position of the sun. Noon was when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. Local people set their timepieces by some well-known clock in their respective communities, such as the one on a prominent church steeple or in a jeweler’s window.
This meant that when it was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 p.m. in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:13 in Cincinnati, and 12:07 in Indianapolis. Or, when it was noon in Detroit, it was about 11:50 a.m. in Grand Rapids. Indeed, there were at least 27 different local times within the state of Michigan alone. Indiana was slightly less confusing, with just 23 local times, but Wisconsin — with 38 — was a clock watcher’s nightmare.
“In every city and town,” historian Stewart Holbrook wrote in 1947, “the multiplicity of time standards confused and bewildered passengers, shippers and railway employees. Too often, errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision.”
In 1872, railroad officials from around the country met in Missouri to arrange summer passenger schedules. To address the time problem, they formed a permanent organization to work on a solution. In October 1883, this body (then known as the General Time Convention) approved a plan, conceived entirely through the ingenuity of private citizens, to establish standardized time zones. It chose the date of Nov. 18, 1883, for the adoption of the new system by virtually every railroad in the country. “Railroad time” quickly became the new “local time” everywhere — or at least almost everywhere.
One of the holdouts was the city of Detroit. The view that the sun, not man, dictated what time it was enjoyed broad support in the city. Henry Ford complained about the disparity; he designed a watch with two dials, one that kept local time for when he was in Detroit, and another that kept standard time. Time marched on, but Detroit did not.
Detroit stuck to local time until 1900, when the City Council ordered clocks to be set back 28 minutes to comply with Central Standard Time (yes, Central). The problem was that half the city obeyed and half refused, which made the confusion even worse.
Finally, the City Council rescinded its order and reverted to the old time. Somebody made a facetious offer to erect a sundial in front of City Hall, but it was scornfully referred to the Committee on Sewers. It wasn’t until 1905 that Detroit, by a citywide vote, adopted standard time and became part of the Central time zone.
While standardized time zones were embraced voluntarily by most of the country, the federal government actually sought to prevent it. The U.S. Attorney General ordered that no department of the federal government could run according to the new system until authorized by Congress. In March 1918, about 35 years after standard time began, Congress finally put Washington, D.C.’s stamp of approval on what had been accomplished largely through private initiative. It made one major adjustment, however: It took Michigan out of the Central time zone and put it in the Eastern zone. Aside from a small slice of the Western Upper Peninsula, the state remains there today.
What time is it? Thankfully, almost no matter where you live in Michigan, there’s been a uniform answer to that question for about a century.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.