Scrambled Time

Back during WW1, the government decided that to keep the home front productive, and to save on fuel, clocks would be set back 1 hour in the Fall, and ahead 1 hour in the Spring. Thus began what was called for years War Time, or, to the irreverent: Scrambled Time or Wildcat Time. In Oregon we call it Pacific Daylight Time…  Well, it’s that time again.

At 2 a.m., Thursday November 4, if your state or community concurs, you are ordered to set your clock back by one hour.

If you want to know more about all this, please don’t call us, call the Department of Transportation.That’s right. It’s the DOT that’s responsible for all this, not us. This harks back to the old railroad days, when it was the old train station clock that pretty much was the timekeeper to the general populace. Although the U.S. Naval Observatory has always been in the business of maintaining the nation’s Master Clock, and determining what the time is, it’s only after we’re told twice a year by DOT (and Congress’ Standard Time Act) where to point the hands.

The U.S. Naval Observatory offered its first time service to the public in 1845. This was right after Superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury received a letter from the Secretary of the Navy which said:

“Dear Sir, You will be pleased to devise some signal by which the mean time may be made known every day to the inhabitants of the city…”

Thus pleased, Maury immediately ordered 4 vulcanized rubber balls from Charles Goodyear (they make other things now) and at 10 minutes before noon every day but Sunday, a ball was hoisted up a flagstaff atop the Observatory’s telescope dome. The pulley was connected with an electro-magnetic battery to the Observatory’s clock room, and the circuit was broken by an astronomer at precisely noon. The accuracy was better than 1 second, sufficient for all practical purposes.It constituted the nation’s first public time service. Ships in the Potomac could easily determine the error of their chronometers by comparing the clock to the signal ball.**

In 1865, daily time signals were sent by telegraph to Western Union and other users. In 1904, a U.S. Navy station began broadcasting the first worldwide radio time signals which were based on a clock provided and controlled by the Naval Observatory. Today, the Naval Observatory continues to provide the most precise time available. U.S. Naval Observatory time (to within billionths of seconds) is available via orbiting satellites, electronic navigation systems, direct computer access, and telephone voice announcements.

For the correct time, call the Master at the Naval Observatory: 202-653-1800 or 910-410-TIME

In an era when precise time keeping was needed by an ever-increasing “railroad world”, most local communities were keeping their own “local time”based on the Sun and competing local jewelers or watchmakers, the local schools, or the local observatory (if there was one). This played havoc with railroad time schedules, when a traveler going from coast to coast might have to change his watch 20 times! In 1849, most major railroad companies adopted astronomical time as the standard, but precise synchronization of clocks and watches remained lax. This could have horrendous implications, as in 1853, when one more of a series of fatal train wrecks occurred. Once again, the faulty watch of the conductor was blamed when 2 trains collided head on, on a single track, on a blind curve.The New York Times newspaper headlined:

“Our columns groan again (with a story of) wholesale slaughter.”

Precise timekeeping would fast become a practical public service, thanks in part to the railroad industry.