Monday, March 28, 2005

don't worry, your children won't even remember it

Here's a fascinating angle for a science fiction writer to ponder: how technology affects our lives in ways we don't even realize--and in tandem, how industry influences government, which changes our lives, etc. etc.

Do you know why, she asked, we have four time zones in America? I confess I never thought much about it. If pressed, I might have said it was because of television broadcasts. But no: it's because of the railroads.

Traditionally people figured noon based on the sun, which it was direct overhead. In large towns, timekeepers would drop a "time-ball" at the top of a high tower. Everyone could see it and sychronize accordingly.

But the railroads crossed a sizeable arc of the Earth's crust, and from New York to San Fransisco there were as many as 100 different official time zones. Pretty scary when you remember there was no means of communication between trains or even between the train and the depot, except for brief whistle-codes. The only way to avoid collisions was to keep to a strict time-table during runs. An engineer running a train full of stock and immigrants had to know when to pull off to a side track, so as not to get mowed down by an express of sight-seeing first-class passengers out for a jaunt.

The railroads adopted our current four-time-zone standard in 1883. Congress made it law in 1918. People hollered and fussed and predicted doom, but these days we don't even think about it. Nobody from my generation even knows this--I asked several of my trivia-hound friends, and not one knew the answer.

Good thing Microsoft got nipped in the bud, eh?

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