Today in History: November 18
… Upper Half of Clock or Watch Face,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959
On November 18, 1883, precisely at noon, North American railroads switched to a new standard time system for rail operations, which they called Standard Railway Time (SRT). Almost immediately after being implemented, many American cities enacted ordinances, thus resulting in the creation of time "zones.” The four standard time zones adopted were eastern standard time, central daylight time, mountain standard time, and Pacific daylight time. Though tailored to the railroad companies' train schedules, the new system was quickly adopted nationwide, forestalling federal intervention in civil time for more than thirty years, until 1918, when daylight saving time was introduced.
Before clocks, people marked time by the sun and the phases of the moon. With the development of the railway and the invention of the telegraph, accurate time became more important. Prior to adopting SRT, trains traveling east or west between towns had a difficult time maintaining coherent schedules and smooth operations. The new time zones were each one-hour wide, simplifying train schedules and virtually everything else in increasingly industrialized America.
The SRT system was based on geography, economics, the locations of major cities, and the habits and needs of the populace. The one-hour difference in zones was a result of the fact that fifteen degrees of longitude corresponds to one-hour difference in solar time. It was decided that official time would correspond to the mean solar time of the closest meridian of longitude that could be divided evenly by fifteen degrees and was referenced to the meridian at Greenwich, England. There are twenty-four meridians fifteen degrees apart that circle the globe, beginning with Greenwich, the “prime” meridian.
Impetus for the adoption of standardized time, however, did not originate with the railroads. Astronomers and geophysicists, trying to get simultaneous observations from scattered geographical locations, had long advocated standardized time.
Beginning in 1875, Cleveland Abbe—astronomer, meteorologist, and the first head of the U.S. Weather Bureau—lobbied the American Meteorological Society (AMS) to take action on a uniform standard time. The AMS then established the Committee on Standard Time and named Abbe chairman. In 1879, the committee's Report on Standard Time, the key document leading to the implementation of standard time in the U.S., was released. In 1881, the railroad industry's General Time Convention (GTC), a group of officials involved in scheduling, took up the proposal for standardizing time and in 1883, convinced by the AMS report, decided to adopt SRT. The following year, a conference in Washington took up the proposal for international implementation.
The goals of the 1884 International Meridian Conference, were to agree on a common initial meridian (in consideration of the longstanding preference for the Greenwich meridian) and ultimately to standardize time worldwide. A globally recognized initial (prime) meridian had to be established because, unlike latitude, there is no obvious starting point for the meridian lines around the globe that specify east-west positions of longitude, and thus one had to be designated and agreed upon. Greenwich, England, site of the Royal Observatory, was already widely used by mariners, mapmakers, and navigators, and was the prime candidate. Its selection by the railroads also forestalled potential conflict between U.S. cities vying for the honor. International time zones were established according to the SRT system that was implemented in 1893, creating Universal Time (UT) based on the Greenwich meridian, which became "time zero." The twenty-four standard meridians marked the centers of the zones around the globe.
Fast Mail, Northern Pacific Railroad,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., James White, producer,
July or August 1897.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
Meridian Hill Park. Sun Clock at Meridian Hill Park I,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959
American Memory collections are rich in materials on railroads.
- The American Memory sound recordings include a wealth of "train songs." Search the following collections on train and railroad to listen to many examples:
- Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection
- Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell
- Voices from the Dust Bowl: the Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection, 1940-1941
- “ Now What a Time”: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley State Music Festivals, 1938-1943
- Search the collection Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 to find more maps of the railroad routes.
- Visit the following collections to read first-hand experiences of people who followed the railroad lines west:
- Search the Today in History Archive on railroad or train to find features on the early railroads, such as the first regularly scheduled passenger train, the first train robbery, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Oahu Railway, and the Florida East Coast Railway.
American Memory collections also have materials on time and industries.
- A search on time in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals yields several hundred articles on various aspects of time.
- Search the American Memory prints, photos collections on the terms railroad, train, or clock to discover more photographs.
- View the Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919 documenting Morse's invention of the electromagnetic telegraph.
- See an image of Samuel F. B. Morse's colored sketch of a railway signal telegraph, circa 1838, in Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division's First 100 Years.
- Search the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for a wealth of images on clocks and watches.
- Visit the National Institute of Standards exhibition, A Walk Through Time to find out more about the history of standardized time.
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the first practical process of photography, was born near Paris, France, on November 18, 1789. A successful commercial artist and a skilled theatrical designer, Daguerre began experimenting with the effects of light upon translucent paintings in the 1820s. In 1829, he formed a partnership with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) to improve the process that Niépce had developed to take the first permanent photograph in 1826-27.
After several years of experimentation, Daguerre developed a more convenient and effective method of photography, naming it after himself—the daguerreotype. In 1839, he formally announced the process and he and Niépce's son sold the rights for the daguerreotype to the French government. They published a booklet describing the process.
The daguerreotype gained popularity quickly; by 1850, there were over seventy daguerreotype studios in New York City alone. The Library's Daguerreotype Collection consists of more than 700 carefully preserved daguerreotypes. Items of particular interest include a series of portraits of African Americans who emigrated to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, a series of Occupational Photographs, a collection of Architectural Scenes and Outdoor Views, and the architectural daguerreotypes of John Plumbe. The majority of the daguerreotypes in the collection are portraits including the Library's earliest photograph of Abraham Lincoln.
United States Capitol, Washington, D.C.,
John Plumbe, photographer, circa 1846.
America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1864
Root’s Daguerreotype Talbotype, Stereoscopic & Crayon Portrait & Miniature Gallery…,
An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
The Library of Congress has both a rich collection of daguerreotypes as well as materials on the process and its history.
- America's First Look into the Camera: Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839-1862 also includes the largest collection in existence of daguerreotypes from the studio of Mathew Brady. Brady is most famous for his photographs of the Civil War, many of which are featured in Selected Civil War Photographs.
- The Special Presentation Mirror Images: Daguerreotypes at the Library of Congress provides an introduction to the Library's daguerreotype collection. See the Timeline of the Daguerreian Era to learn more about the period.
- Descriptions of the process developed by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and the equipment used by daguerreotype photographers are included in The Daguerreotype Medium; to find them, scroll down to the appropriate headings.
- Search on daguerreotype in The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals. The search yields articles and images. Read, for example, “New-York Daguerreotyped,” an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in April 1853.
- In the late 1850s, with the development of new photographic methods, use of the daguerreotype waned. Search the following collections on the years between 1826 and 1859 to learn about other Daguerreian era forms of art and entertainment.
- Learn more about daguerreotypes from the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.
- Search the Today in History Archive on photographer to find features on Dorothea Lange, Mathew Brady, Gordon Parks, Walker Evans, and Samuel Herman Gottscho and William Schleisner.
- For even more daguerreotypes, see two online exhibitions:
- Secrets of the Dark Chamber: The Art of the American Daguerreotype (external link) from the National Museum of American Art
- Daguerreotypes at Harvard (external link) from the extensive photograph collections of Harvard University and Radcliffe.