I’ve been thinking some about history of late, in part because of the historical connection between DST and a global pandemic. But also in part because I think the clock changing really will be going away soon. (“Soon” in historical terms, that is; soon when you think how it has been around for 100 years. Not “soon” meaning this year, alas.)
One of the key figures in the world of standardized time is William Frederick Allen, who was perhaps the person more responsible than any other for the fact that we got standardized time zones.
He worked for the railroads, and train travel was made more difficult because each town kept its own time. To make it less confusing (!) the railroads kept their own time, but there were more than 50 railroads, so...
Allen decided we needed standardized time zones, so he went to work.
Now, I know this is just a hobby for me. I've never made a nickel doing it, and fixing the time zones was Allen’s job.
Still, it is a bit humbling to see that the New York Public Library has six boxes and one package of writings from Allen. That's just what they collected, just the important stuff. And it’s just his work on standardized time, not his personal correspondence. Six boxes!
I just went and looked, and this will be my 83rd post on this blog. That sounds like a lot in some ways, but it sure wouldn’t fill up six boxes. And when you realize that I’ve written 83 posts over more than six years, that works out to about a post a month. Quoting Tom Wolfe, that is “not exactly [a] staggering literary output.”
If you add in all the emails that I have exchanged with state legislators, USDOT lawyers, and congressional staffers... It still wouldn’t fill up a box.
Mr. Allen didn’t have social media. He didn’t have TV, so I guess that helped. It must have taken him a while to shave just his chin so nicely, but still, the guy was dogged in working to get the clocks working the way that made sense to him, and soon would to the rest of the world.
All that work did pay off, though, and we now live in a world he imagined, where the “top of the hour” comes at the same time for everyone in the world, except for a few dare-to-be-different areas of India, Newfoundland where they are a half-hour off Universal Coordinated Time. (Nepal is 45 minutes different. Must be the thin air up there.)
And what did this time pioneer think about changing the clocks twice per year? Well, I can't find a record of if he did say anything about it. The concept was bouncing around in his later years, but blessedly for him was not enacted during his life. He died in 1915, just a couple of years before WWI and the start of the clock-changing.
And finally, what will our place in DST history be? What will people say about me, and you, and all the other followers of this blog, the twitter account, the FB page, and all those who have created DST memes and all the rest?
I hope they will say that we cared about the right things — that once we realized that changing clocks was killing people, that we tried to do something about it. I hope they will say that we did our best.
But I bet what really happens is that we are all... forgotten.
And that will be OK.
Right now people think about the #LockTheClock movement twice per year when the clocks change. Again.
In the future, they won’t be thinking about it because the clocks won’t change. They will just go to work on that Monday after the Spring Forward time change, and they won’t get in an accident. They won’t have a heart attack. They won’t have a stroke. They won’t be mad because they changed all the clocks in the house but forgot about the one in the car.
They will just live their lives and forget about all of this, and that will be OK with me.
Addendum: The Yates Connection
While writing this post, I found that the New York Public Library has a way to contact the staff to ask to see certain documents. With COVID, you can’t go in, so I asked if they could just snap a picture of a couple of pages and send them to me.
The pages I wanted in particular were from letters sent between William Allen and a man named W. H. Yates. From what I can glean about W. H. Yates, we are not related, alas.
But we are related in that he was a bit of a kook!
Unsolicited, he wrote to Mr. Allen a note that is very much like the notes I get quite often. He suggested that when they standardize time, they also throw out the notion of 24 hours a day, and switch to 10 hours a day, and 10 time zones around the world!
“We have a decimal coinage, let us have a decimal day...” he wrote at the start of a three-page letter explaining how it could all work.
The idea would have been tough to put in place, even in those days when there might have only been one or two clocks in a town. Standardizing the time just meant setting the existing clocks to a different relative time; changing to a 10-hour day would mean everyone would have to use new clocks.
If Mr. Allen considered the idea at all, it wasn’t seriously. It took him three months to write the guy back, and after apologizing for the delay wrote:
The system proposed may possibly be adopted at some time or other for scientific purposes, but I doubt if it will ever be practically applied and that there would be much advantage, if any, over the system recently adopted.
I have to say, I really enjoyed seeing this as I get letters all the time from people telling me how I should fix the time, without ever really considering that I’m just a guy with a blog. Even the Daily Show called me a “Time Wizard.”
So in a sense while I share a name with the kook, I share the particular joy over the centuries of being a fellow Time Wizard with Mr. William Allen.
Thanks so much to the crackerjack staff of the NYPL. Here is a link and the official bit of credit they asked me to include:
William Frederick Allen papers. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.