Railroad Time Zones: A Case Study in the Greater Good?

Early depiction of Time Zones or Belts as they were called in 1883. Better for you than Toaster Streudel and less confusing that a Thursday Night edition of Monday Night Football.

Early depiction of Time Zones or “Time Belts” as they were called upon their introduction in 1883. Eventually citizens found them less confusing than a Thursday Night edition of Monday Night Football.

Ogg returned to the cave and proudly presented his proto-wife with the spoils for the day – a scrawny pterodactyl. She cast one withering glance at his meager bounty and huffed, “You call that hunting and gathering? You’re all hunt and no gather. Would it kill you to gather some berries once in a while?”

In a similar way I return from my writing desk and hope to present you with more than a scrawny bird-brained essay to chew on, lest you cast one withering glance at my meager typing and huff, “You call that hunting and pecking? You’re all hunt and no pecker. Would it kill you to gather your thoughts once in a while?”

My speculation here is extravagant. Not only in assuming prehistoric man spoke English, but in assuming readers are interested in an essay that tries to bypass the usual clichés of “Life being about the journey” and instead suggests an even less appealing theme: “If everyone behaved more like me, the world would be a better place.”


Rant of the Well-Intentioned

I’m no role model though. For years I thought my grandfather suffered from “f*cking pneumonia” until one day I realized grandma was saying “walking pneumonia.” My thinking, at times, can be quite passé. For example, I just found out on Thursday you can’t send telegrams anymore. Oh, well – happy belated birthday mom. Obviously I can’t set myself up as a paragon of optimal behavior when I’m still pulling stunts like this? I mean there are times you might want a gift receipt. And other times you’d be ashamed to admit to the sales clerk that someone would give you such a piss-ant gift.


Our lives are riven with minutia. We spend too much time binge-watching Breaking is the New Bad or reveling in the joy of receiving a record 51 Likes on our Facebook repost of somebody else’s idea – oh boy, they like me. I want to inoculate you against this solipsistic baloney and I don’t even know what solipsistic means or what baloney really is. The problem is we want dessert all the time when we know in our hearts that boring-ass kale is God’s chosen vegetable. We’re showered with such a firehose of information that by the end of the day we feel psychologically water-boarded and we’ll do anything for relief. And so we try to divert this non-stop, powerful stream of cultural precipitate by taking refuge in that all-healing cliché: “Life is about the journey.”


We (and I say we because I sense you need a Czarist strong man to express your feelings) try not to ask too many “Whys” or “What ifs” even though our big brains and small lives demand it. Rather we try to live our lives with a certain amount of bravado – a certain “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead” ferocity. At least we’d like to think we do. And so it is against this fictional backdrop of our rugged individualism, I’d like to convey a crucial point which is my entire reason for writing this dense little essay. But like most things worth knowing, I can only present it in a roundabout manner.


Roundabout in the way a moon shot requires an enormous 360 ft. Saturn V rocket to send the comparatively tiny, yet vital 18 ft. lunar module on its heavenly journey (it seems moonshots are “about the journey” too). Similarly I need to set the stage for launching my small, yet noteworthy point on its edifying trajectory. So just as the Saturn V rocket had to do the heavy lifting in stages, I’ll propel you to the heart of this essay in stages.


Stage 1: Lift-off. Houston I’ve got a Problem – It’s Murky out Here 

I sense you’re engaged right now, and perhaps this essay is even generating a sort of perfunctory head nod combined with a slight crinkling between your eyebrows while your bottom lip press outward and upward against your upper lip (Pause while you take a moment to imitate this). As these facial maneuvers briefly coalesce you say to yourself, “I can’t believe I just did that.”  


Now I don’t mean to put words in your head, but there’s something more at play here than simple cognition. There always is. After all, as the bard once said, “We are spirits in the material world” (alright it wasn’t that bard, it was Sting. Give me a break. The bard doesn’t always have to be Shakespeare – just British).


What I’m trying to convey is a very delicate and ephemeral idea that may fly away on its gossamer wings if I scare it off by pursuing it hastily or improperly. I hope to sneak up on it, capture it, have it professionally taxidermied and then present it to you stuffed and mounted in all its 3-dimensional glory. The better for you to examine and appreciate it from different perspectives while you begrudgingly nod your head as earlier described and say, “I can’t believe I just did that.”


Stage 2. The Unvarnished Truth is Always Better when it’s Glossed Over

I’m an ambitious sort and instead of mere taxidermied truth suitable for standoffish study, I’ll use both hemispheres of my cerebrum to cook up a more nourishing essay that sticks to your brainpan like the news of a celebrity death. Well, what were you doing when you learned Michael Jackson had died in June of 2009? I was still mourning the loss of Farrah Fawcett who predeceased him by about 4 hours. People gloss over that little Angel’s death because of the enormity of The Gloved One’s demise, but I always related better to Farah Fawcett. She was someone I could get behind – at least I always hoped to; despite what her restraining order might’ve said.


I’ll admit this think-piece (who doesn’t warm to that hyphenated term) is ultimately an ambitious attempt at behavior modification – not in a bad 1984 Orwellian way, but in a good Seven Habits of Highly Successful People way. We should all strive to be our best, or at least strive to be my version of what’s best. After all, isn’t enlightenment the only game in town once you’ve wearied of the distractions in this bootleg version of heaven? This exasperating world where the theories of Marx and Lenin make great sense on paper but are a disaster in practice. A world where sex makes no sense on paper, but is sublime in practice (or on the paper).


I toss off all this cutesy written confetti in hopes of touching your inner Disney. Your happy place where all things are possible and you’re motivated to reflect light instead of just “stuff you’ve heard.” That place where you take a deep breath and muse “What was I ever so worried about?”


Stage 3. I don’t want to live in a world like that…even though I do live in a world like that

It’s hard to live life as a precious gift to be savored one moment at a time. Especially with so many people walking around “commando style” and not being sure who’s armed and who isn’t. If there were to be a zipper malfunction their WMDs Weapons of Mutual Desire would be concealed no more.


We’re saddled with a head full of nonsense. Let me rephrase that: I’m saddled with a head full of nonsense and I’m stymied by all the stupid people who spoil it for the rest of us who donate to PBS. I’m a sucker for those Pledge Drives. They’re like very polite timeshare sales pitches. But where else can I hear a 12-minute discussion on how retaliatory Guatemalan rutabaga tariffs hinder Honduran tuber farmers from modernizing their equipment.


Stage 4. Stage 4 is brought to you by GEICO – 15 minutes could save you 15%

How else am I going to pay the bills?


Stage 5. And My Point Is Only One Stage Away Now

So let’s get away from nonsense and back on track. A railroad track to be exact. And let’s take a journey courtesy of the railroad industry to a surprising destination. I’m not joking fellow travelers. Our train has left the station with an idea on board. A big game-changing idea born on November 18, 1883 when nationwide, time stood still for one brief moment while we readjusted our clocks into the time zones we’re so familiar with today.


1883 was generally a backward and cartoonish time period with mutton-chopped Chester Alan Arthur presiding in the White House and clean-shaven Queen Victoria reigning in the House of Hanover. In 1883 we’d not been to the North & South Poles yet and great advances like radio and the iron lung were still years away. 


Against these straitened circumstances is it any wonder a slam dunk idea like standardizing times zones met with such unthinking resistance?


Stage 6. Back on Track

I’m sure we’re all agreed we could not imagine a world without the Newtonian reliability of Time Zones. They are the sine qua non of temporally ordering a time-fragmented world and are an entirely worthy and beneficial thing. It homogenized our continental timekeeping and did something rarely afforded by a quibbling society: it peaceably imposed order on chaos. However, implementing it in the 1880’s was an unnecessarily pitched battle between practical ingenuity and benighted ignorance. Some questioned whether the railroads were empowered to exercise eminent domain over local time.  


Luddites resisted these unelected railroad officials who we’re trying to foist their time zone scheme on a populace still wary of the sundial. Of course they would’ve resisted them even if they were elected railroad officials. That’s what obstructionists do. They do the opposite of Hey Jude. They take a sad song and make it sadder. Here’s a sampling of citizens’ reactions to being railroaded on time zones implementation:


First they tell us we can’t have slaves any more. Now they tell us what time it’s going to be. What’s next? Horseless carriages?  ~ Atlanta


Will someone explain to me why I have to reset my pocket watch in Louisiana so trains don’t collide in Virginia? Makes no sense. ~ Shreveport


Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? ~ Chicago


Stage 7. My Version of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time

Former Chief Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstein, wrote in his book The Discoverers, that time (and more specifically being on time) was not very important until we were able to properly mark it. And the more accurately we accomplished this, the more important punctuality became. For example, Roman General Marc Antony could never accurately tell his petulant lover Cleopatra he’d be back in Alexandria, Egypt on May 15th, 38 BC. for 2 reasons:

  1. He didn’t know it was BC.
  2. Due to the absence of clocks, the most accurate timeframe he could guarantee he’d return to the arms of his dusky Queen was a crude approximation based on the seasons.

A scroll found in a Hadra vase near the long since destroyed Library at Alexandria contained this note verified as being written in the hand of Marc Antony to his beloved Cleopatra. Translated it read:

Cleo. Baby. Don’t be like that. You know if I had it my way I’d stay, but JC [Mr. Antony is referring to Julius Caesar] needs me to defend Rome against some invaders that are vandalizing everything. They call themselves Vandals. I promise I’ll be back next Sun Cycle when the papyrus is about knee high. And do not worry my darling, I’ll stop at the Forum and get you those togas we talked about.


That’s the best Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor could do to sync their calendars during the filming of Cleopatra. The zeal of the organs may have been fulltime, but time itself was measured in chunky seasons or grainy sand glasses.


Sundials were ubiquitous, but had little utility in marking time. They were purposeless at night and completely unreliable on cloudy days. And even though most citizens of Ancient Greece felt the Apple® Sundial was a slick looking product, nobody could orient the thing. In other words, being on time wasn’t much of a virtue in antiquity. And it wouldn’t become a virtue until the advent of time pieces around the year !%!% (which, I just discovered, is actually the year 1515 if you accidentally hold down the shift key while typing 1515). Punctuality only became a worthy goal or practiced courtesy after the broad dissemination of timepieces afforded us the same frame of reference.


Stage 8. The Times they are a-changing

The same insuperable barrier to consensus in politics (all politics are local), also arose in timekeeping (all time was local). We’re all familiar with the Standard Time zones we’ve been born into: Pacific, Mountain, Central and Trump. But prior to standardization all time was local and it was noon in your locality whenever the sun was at its highest azimuth above the horizon. That was a town’s frame of reference and citizens grew attached to this notion of local time through force of habit more than anything else. The big Church bell said it was noon, and thus it was such.


Because (as Einstein proved a few decades later) time was relative, the problem arose that when it was 12:00 noon in Philadelphia (when the sun’s azimuth was directly overhead) it was 11:52 a.m. in Harrisburg a mere 105 miles to the west and 10:50 a.m. in Chicago. This time distortion proved no real disruption in the more agrarian and localized world prior to the Civil War. Back then citizens thought locally and acted locally. There was no “global” in the vocabulary yet. In fact some flat earthers weren’t even sure there was a globe to begin with.


Stage 9. Self-Interest Sparks Change

Back in 1876, just after the Episcopal Church bell rang out 12 peals, a Farmer John in Atchison, Kansas transported his sorghum crop to market in a Conestoga wagon at the breakneck speed of 4 miles an hour. He was little concerned that they were still having breakfast in Sacramento. But when the farmer’s daughter takes the Atchison and Topeka train to visit her aunt in Wichita, the farmer wants his little Dorothy to arrive safely. Suddenly he cares very deeply that the southbound Santé Fe Line is synchronized to miss his daughter’s train by 5 crucial minutes at the Emporia intersection. A few unaccounted for minutes either way could spoil Aunty Em’s dinner plans for Dorothy. It was this kind of self-interest that eventually facilitated time zone acceptance.


In no time it became apparent to all that Implementing this common sense railroad time standard would not only promote fewer collisions, but would also ensure a steady supply of farmer’s daughter jokes for generations to come. Win-win. And yet still there were pockets of resistance.


The Eagle has Landed. Tranquility Base is Established.

As past is prologue, I encourage everyone to look beyond their provincial world and long held biases. To pursue the greater good of any issue; as with this case study of synchronizing time to facilitate scheduling and avoid collisions. I urge you to stand on the shoulders of your ancestors and use their hard won vantage point to determine the best course of action. And I exhort you with the single-mindedness of a honey badger to be on the right side of history.  


Who couldn’t agree on those platitudes? Who would have the temerity to oppose or delay this universally helpful measures (I mean besides Republicans)? Why forestall this common sense safety-oriented and cogent proposal to standardize time (They say rhetorical questions happen in 3’s so that should be the last one.)?


No one would oppose it. And yet there were pockets of hunkered down mentalities unwilling to surrender their ancient horse and buggy local time to a greater good even though the impact on them would be negligible and the benefits to society abundant. These reactionaries were, “Not gonna have time imposed on me by those meddling railroad barons. They can pay me to reset the hands of my watch. Otherwise they can pry the hands off my cold, dead watch.”


And that kind of visceral stance is all well and good until it’s their turn to take a Ride on the Reading. Suddenly the idea of coordinating universal time to prevent train collisions is in their self-interest and isn’t so mind-numbingly opposed: “Well I reckon it’s for a good cause and it’s not like them robber barons is takin’ any money out of my pocket, I could support it.”  


Delight in Your Ability to Think Critically otherwise Enjoy the Velveeta

Reexamine and refresh your viewpoint regularly just like you were showering. Floss in between your preconceived notions and remove years of unexamined decrepitude. It’s very liberating. Use a flavored floss and your brain will remain minty fresh until you face your next dilemma. Exercise your Free Will in ways that reflect your appreciation of its cost.


And please don’t confuse this little plea for self-examination with the profit-driven drivel from a Motivational Speaker, as he mesmerizes a hotel ballroom of susceptible people in search of their Inner Disney. I make no money from my drivel. I only profit from it in terms of gaining peace of mind, knowing at least a few curious souls are using this case study of railroad time zones as a basis for reexamining and refreshing their viewpoints. So take the plunge down Splash Mountain at Frontierland where you’ll not only come out renewed and refreshed, but also find your Inner Disney. And when you do you’ll nod your head, crinkle your eyebrows while your bottom lip press outward and upward against your upper and say, “I can’t believe I just did that.”

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