The Telegraph Office

by Neal McEwen, K5RW

Time, Standard Time and Western Union

How the Telegraph Contributed to Standard Time

by Ed Trump, former telegrapher,

Copyright  © 1997, L. E. Trump

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Before the American Civil War, most communities got along pretty well using "local time". This was usually determined locally by the position of the sun at midday, Noon being when the sun was directly overhead, displaying the shortest shadow on a sundial or other local indicator. Folks who carried watches set them by this crude local standard and pretty much went on about their business without any problems. Since it usually took days to travel to anyplace else, time in one place ran along pretty much independently of Time in another place.

Better watches were soon developed, and as more people began carrying timepieces and becoming aware of the necessity for accurate time during the industrial age, the problem of just how to keep everyone's watch and clock reading the same time began to come up. For a single community, the steam whistle on a local factory, mill or mine was often used as a synchronizing signal, with a long blast at exactly the Noon hour. This tradition was and still is kept in many communities. While this sort of synchronizing method worked pretty well locally, real problems began to show up when railroads and the telegraph began to span more than a few hundred miles east and west.

Soon, it was discovered that railroad crews would begin their run at one end of a division with their watches set to the proper time, and find that when they arrived at the other end of their run, their watches would be many minutes off as compared to the "local" time of their arrival point. The difference in longitude was small, but had more than a noticeable effect on the difference in time observed at each end of the run. This obviously raised hell with schedules and connections with other railroads. The use of the telegraph in dispatching trains more or less forced the railroad offices along the line to remain on the same time, but the problem of "railroad" time and "local" time not being the same, continued to cause problems all over the country.

There were no established time "zones" and in general, the time situation was becoming chaotic. A quick look at the history books tells us that the US Naval Observatory began transmitting time signals to Washington D.C. in 1865 by telegraph, with the natural extension of this service via Western Union telegraph lines to railroads all across the nation. This proved an excellent solution to the time problem, as the nearly instantaneous transmission of time signals over the telegraph wires allowed electrical or manual synchronizing of clocks and watches at any point the telegraph wires reached.

To make things more "normal" to humans, who seem to like "Noon" to be when the sun is "straight up", the four "time zones" "Eastern", "Central", "Mountain", and "Pacific" were established and the standard time in these zones, "adjusted" so as to be an hour different east to west, keeping "noon" close to where it should occur in the day as the sun passed overhead. After about 1865, synchronizing time was traditionally done on the U.S. Railroads and in the larger cities in conjunction with the Western Union standard time signals. Western Union synchronized their main office clocks in the larger cities by telegraph, electrically, with the U.S. Naval Observatory.

These clocks were large weight driven pendulum types and were synchronized daily with the signal from the USNO, and tied into the time service switchboard. This time service switchboard, or "clock board" as it was known, was basically a switchboard terminating loop circuits with special relays, which were cut into Morse wires and city clock circuits to jewelry stores, banks etc. taking battery in that office. Contact closures in the master synchronized clock operated the switchboard clock loops, which in turn sent the signals out over the telegraph wires and clock circuits to the subscribers. At High Noon E.S.T., the standard time signal was thereby transmitted to every office cut in on every telegraph wire. The Western Union synchronized main office clocks furnished the synchronizing signal to the clock board continuously, which sent synchronizing signals to the time service subscribers each hour.

On the Morse wires, the time signal began a couple of minutes before the hour, and came across the wire as a "click" each second, until a few seconds before the exact hour, then a pause, and then a final "click" right exactly at "The Hour". The wire would then close, and be available for regular work. All railroad operations people (Engineers, Firemen, Brakemen, Conductors, Section Foremen, Dispatchers, Telegraphers, etc.) were required to carry a standard, Railroad approved, 21 jewel pocket watch (the only wrist watch allowed up until about 1975 was the Bulova "Accutron"), and an up-to-date watch inspection card at all times while on duty. (You could count on being fired or at least put on suspension if you got caught working without these two items and a Company timetable in your possession.)

The timepieces had to be inspected by an approved watch inspector at regular intervals and had to keep time to within a few seconds a day. Most 21 jewel RR standard watches would do better than this. This of course was before the time of the 'el-cheapo' super accurate quartz watches we have today; 30 years ago such a thing did not exist. At the hour the time signal came, everybody on the railroad that was within earshot of the Morse sounder stopped what they were doing and fished out their watch to check it. The rules required, that if your watch was not within 30 seconds, you set it on the time signal "mark".

The clock circuits to the various time service subscribers would activate a solenoid in the subscriber's clock mechanism which "zeroed" the minute and second hands of the clock movement on the "mark" signal at each hour. This solenoid was designed into the clock mechanism so that it could only perform its "zeroing" function when the minute hand was within two minutes of the hour, signals at any other time were ignored. These clocks were pendulum type, spring driven clocks, with an electrical winding device powered by dry cells that periodically wound the clock's mainspring and kept it going. Western Union leased these clocks to subscribers at an extremely low annual rate, about $25.

Western Union's vast clock circuit networks, and the telegraph wire connections that supported them, remained in service into the 1970's, finally disappearing when the giant Western Union Telegraph Company itself passed into oblivion. Indeed, the final "duty" of many of the Morse telegraph wires along the nation's railroads was that of transmitting a daily time signal to all the railroad's offices.

The need for synchronized time did not disappear with Western Union. What supplanted or replaced it was the network timing of the nation's vast telephone and data transmission systems. These are linked with the US Naval Observatory's Master Clock system which incorporates hydrogen masers, and mercury ion frequency standards, and represent the most advanced technologies available to date. Synchronization with the Master Clock is now beginning to be carried out through the use of atomic clocks in satellites, such as the GPS satellites, which will provide the primary means of time distribution worldwide in the future. And so..... standard time was, and is, kept "standard".

(Ed has had lots of experience as a railroader and telegrapher; check out his interesting bio)

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Neal McEwen,