Local History: The Day of Two Noons
South Orange resident William Allen came up with a plan for putting railroad companies on uniform schedules in 1883 that resulted in standard time being implemented throughout the country.
For every commuter whose train has been delayed and for every traveler whose plans have been derailed by a problem on the rails, consider this: before South Orange’s own William Frederick Allen came along, the nation's railroads operated under about 50 regional times. In fact, rail companies often induced areas of the country to alter local time to suit the railroad’s operating time. The challenges of cross-country travel were enormous, at least until William Allen took charge.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, Allen was born in Bordentown, NJ, on Oct. 9, 1846, the son of Col. Joseph Warner and Sarah Burns Norcross Allen. He attended the Episcopal Academy at Philadelphia, and received the honorary degree of Master of Science from Princeton University in 1906.
Allen began his career as a surveyor on the Camden & Amboy Railroad, then became engineer of the West Jersey Railroad. In 1870, he founded the town of Wenonah, NJ. When he became editor and manager of “The Official Railway Guide,” based in Manhattan, Allen and his wife, the former Caroline Perry York, moved to Scotland Road in South Orange. He was successful professionally; throughout his career, he served as president of the Knickerbocker Guide Company, vice-president of the New York Transfer Company, treasurer of the American Railway Supply Company, and chairman of the Board of the Railway Equipment and Publication Company. He was also a director of the Manhattan Fire Alarm Company, Gamewell Fire Alarm Telegraph Company, and American Railway Guide Company.
In addition, he was active in his new hometown. Allen served as president of the Meadow Land Society of South Orange and was influential in establishing South Orange’s golf course. Allen was also president of the Drainage Commission of South Orange from 1883 to 1895; member of the Board of Assessment, 1885-86; member of the Board of Trustees, 1889-90; and director of the South Orange Free Library Association. Socially, he was a star in our small town; his family is included in a social “blue book” of the period that listed our most influential families.
However, Allen is remembered more broadly for bringing about the practical application of Standard Time in the U.S., which was adopted by the railroads of America and came into use in November 1883.
By 1880, according to “The American Experience” on PBS, the nation claimed 93,000 miles of railroad. The transcontinental railway was complete, and George Westinghouse was at work on signal devices that would improve passenger safety. Still, as late as 1883, towns across the nation set their own times by observing the position of the sun. (When the sun was directly overhead, the townspeople considered it noon and counted from there.) Instead of Eastern Standard Time, for example, there was Philadelphia Standard Time, which was about a minute different from Jersey City Time. Railroad junctions served by several railroads had a separate clock for each railroad, each showing a different time. Pittsburgh’s main station, for example, kept six different times.
For years, ideas were floated about how to resolve the inevitable complications of 50 time zones and as many train schedules. Several remedies seem nearly as complicated as the problem, dividing the country into numerous large chunks. Canadian Sandford Fleming is often credited with efforts to solve the problem.
Then, in 1875, Allen helped establish and then served as General Secretary of the American Railway Association. In that capacity, he put forth a plan that looks like the time zones we know today. The borders of time zones, as Allen saw them, ran through railroad stations, often in major cities. For example, the border between its Eastern and Central time zones ran through Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Charleston. The plan was simple, and—because they feared federal government intervention—the railroad companies agreed.
Allen's plan was implemented on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1883, also called "The Day of Two Noons," when each railroad station clock was reset, according to its time zone. Then, as now, cities differ in time by hours, not minutes or half hours. Within one year, most cities used standard time. Standard time was formally adopted by Congress on March 19, 1918 in the Standard Time Act.
According to a New York Times article published on the “Day of Two Noons,” Allen was pleased with the results of his efforts. He “finds his reward in the saving of necessary calculations by railroad officers and their consequent thanks, and in the remembrance that his name will be forever connected with the successful accomplishment of one of the most useful reforms possible to the heretofore often bewildered traveler.”
William Frederick Allen died at his South Orange home in 1915, at age 70. He left behind a widow, four sons and a grateful rail-riding nation.