On Time Again

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 31, 2011    •    688 Views

Have you ever thought about the difference that a clock makes? Described in The Geography of Time, a pre-clock world meant you could not say, “I will meet you at 12:30 for lunch” or “Your workday is 9-5.”

By the 1820s, though, technology had progressed enough that many places in the U.S. had clocks. The next problem though, was deciding the right time. How to measure? Where to measure? And why?

The reason was the economy.

During the 1860s, the 70 or so different time zones in the U.S. needed coordinating. Seeing an opportunity to profit, Alexander Langley sold what he called the “right time” to people in the Pittsburgh area. Using Western Union, for an annual fee of $1000, he sent the time to the Pennsylvania Railroad so that they could standardize train schedules. By 1883, the railroads had declared there were 4 time zones in the U.S. And, in 1918, the Congress agreed.

You might want to read Keeping Watch A History of American Time for some good stories about time conflicts. Also, a previous post about The Geography of Time is here.

The Economic Lesson

Railroads facilitated a national market, regional specialization, and maximum productivity because each area of the U.S. could do what it did best. As our national market grew, the need to standardize train schedules became increasingly necessary.

An Economic Question: Using the concept of a national market, how might you explain why the euro zone was created?

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