All Commentary
Friday, October 30, 2015

How We Figured Out What – and Where – the Time Is

Government, of course, fought against it

In his book and TV series How We Got to Now, popular science author Steven Johnson counts standard time among the six great innovations that made the modern world.

He’s not talking about everyone turning back the clocks this weekend. He’s referring to the phenomenon that FEE’s president, Larry Reed, explored in his Freeman article “It Wasn’t Government that Fixed Your Clock.” 

Before about 130 years ago, if you asked someone the time, “you could have received 38 different answers in a single state and many more than that in some countries.”

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 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.

The state’s centrally planned nuisance of “daylight saving,” in which millions of us are forced to adjust our schedules, plans, and clocks — and still manage to miss meetings for a day or two in the confusion — is a product of 20th century big government.

By contrast, the 19th century innovation of standard time and time “zones” was a triumph of voluntary private cooperation. 

“How the invention of standard time brought order out of an astonishing degree of confusion is a sadly forgotten tale and a great tribute to ingenuity in a free society,” Larry writes. But, of course,

While standardized time zones were speedily and voluntarily embraced by most of the country, the federal government actually sought to prevent it. The director of the Naval Observatory argued strenuously against any manmade challenge to the authority of the sun.

The U.S. Attorney General ordered that no department of the federal government could run according to the system developed in 1883 until authorized by Congress, which took 35 years.

Read the rest of the story here.

And see a clip of Johnson’s show on standard time here: