The 2,130th Meeting of the Society

March 30, 2001

Lobbying for Time in Nineteenth-Century America

Ian R. Bartky

Bethesda, MD

About the Lecture

During the nineteenth century many astronomical observatory directors sold time to their locales. These markets were blossoming, the result of a new technology that gave them the means to verify their time's accuracy. The concurrent expansion of fire-alarm and police telegraphs, the country's first period of wired cities and towns, provided the means for ensuring consistent local time throughout the various locales.

The enormous growth of American railroads, coupled with the ever-expanding net of telegraphy's "lightning wires," led both astronomers and meteorologists concerned with weather forecasting to lobby for uniform time over larger and larger regions of the United States. However, these burgeoning technologies also fostered new inventions and strong competition in time services by the private sector. By the start of the twentieth century the U.S. Naval Observatory dominated timekeeping, with its "free" signal distributed daily by the Western Union Telegraph Company to thousands of synchronized, self-winding clocks located in every American city.

The story of this country's fundamental change in time reckoning—from local times tied to longitude to a set of four linked zones encompassing the United States—is told in "Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America," (Stanford University Press, 2000). Author Ian Bartky's lecture will highlight the decades-long process, with an emphasis on the Washington scene.

About the Speaker

Ian Bartky studied at Berkeley under physical chemist William F. Giauque, receiving his Ph.D. for research in low-temperature calorimetry and thermodynamics. Most of his professional career was at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS); during that time he engaged in laboratory research, was a Public Affairs Fellow at Stanford University, a Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellow with the U.S. House of Representatives, and the managing editor for the first National Climate Program Plan. He concluded his government career with headquarters management oversight of several basic and applied research areas in the U.S. Army's R&D laboratories.

Bartky's interest in public aspects of time began during his fellowship year on Capitol Hill when, responding to the oil embargo crisis, Congress enacted a year-round, daylight saving time (DST) requirement. He analyzed the first year's effects, and recommended reducing DST's observance period; the law was changed. Soon after he led the NBS team that analyzed DST's effects on energy use and traffic fatalities, testifying at hearings on changes to the law.

After retiring from government service, Bartky continued to study public time, his efforts supported in part by awards from the National Science Foundation and the Trustees of the Dudley Observatory. He has published numerous articles and given many talks on the subject to both specialists and general audiences. His book, "Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America," is available from Stanford University Press.

He remains a member of the American Chemical Society, Sigma Xi, AAAS, the Society for the History of Technology, the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, and the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC).


President McDiarmid called the 2130th meeting to order at 8:19 p.m. on March 30, 2001. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2129th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2130th meeting was. The title of his presentation was “Lobbying for Time in Nineteenth-Century America”.

The book Longitude made many people aware of how the problem of determining longitude is solved – by using a sextant to measure the apparent local time and comparing that with an accurate chronometer to measure the difference with the time at a fixed meridian. The other part of the problem is fixing the standard time. At the start of the 1800's, most cities maintained a standard time based on the local noon, or meridian, usually signaled by clock bells or by a time ball drop. The first time ball at the US Naval Observatory was dropped on December 10, 1844. The first “official” US time was set in 1843 when the US Coast Survey decided to use the Greenwich meridian. It was not immediately adopted for use by the public or business.

A proposal to determine longitude differences by signaling time on a telegraph was first suggested in about 1840 by a number of people including Wheatstone, Gauss, and Struve. It was first done by Wilks in June 1844 only one month after the telegraph was first tested. Telegraphs were set up connecting US observatories in 1849 using the meridian at 24th and H streets, NW, Washington, as the standard. It was used until 1912. Starting in 1852, the fire-alarm and police telegraphs, the country's first wiring of cities and towns, provided a means for ensuring consistent local time.

Railroads individually maintained “railroad time” with one time everywhere on each line regulated by the conductors' watches. Of 175 train accidents, 5 were related to time errors. A gazetteer of the 76 standard railroad times was published in 1874 by Charles F. Dowd. He suggested that the US railroads use four time zones. The growth of the railroads, coupled with the ever-expanding net of telegraphy, led both astronomers and meteorologists concerned with weather forecasting to lobby for uniform time over larger and larger regions of the United States. In 1876 such proposals were advocated by Cleveland Abby of the American Meteorological Society, Edward S. Holden of the Naval Observatory, and Admiral Davis of the Academy of Science, all members of the Philosophical Society of Washington. In that same year Western Union began offering a telegraphic time service. In May 1879, Cleveland Abby reported on a Standard Time proposal to the American Meteorological Society. A comparison of three different observatory times found large excursions. The Army Signal Service proposed a mean time based on the times of nine US observatories with the signal to be transmitted by telegraph along with its weather transmissions. Another report in December of that year found errors of up to 5 seconds in the New York City ball drop.

In April 1883, a Report on General Railroad Time by William Frederick Allen proposed time zones using the Greenwich meridian. It was implemented on November 18. In 1884 an International Meridian Conference failed in adopting a proposed a worldwide system of time zones. In 1890, the Secretary of the Navy ordered that the Naval Observatory stop sending the noon signal by telegraph. This was later revoked and by the start of the twentieth century the free US Naval Observatory time signal was distributed by the Western Union Telegraph Company to thousands of synchronized, self-winding clocks in almost every American city. Finally on March 19, 1918, the act establishing a national daylight savings time as a war measure brought a national standard time with four time zones.

Mr. Bartky kindly answered questions from the floor. President McDiarmid thanked Mr. Bartky for the society, and welcomed him to its membership. Mr. Hershey spoke briefly on the benefits of PSW membership. The President made the announcements about the next meeting, parking, and refreshments, and adjourned the 2130th meeting to the social hour at 9:45 p.m.

Attendance: 34
Temperature: 10.1°C
Weather: clear
Links: Find 'Ian R. Bartky' at

Respectfully submitted,

John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary