Philosophical Society of Washington

Lobbying for Time in Nineteenth-Century America

Ian R. Bartky
Bethesda, MD

2130th Meeting Abstract
Friday, March 30, 2001 at 8:15 P.M.


During the nineteenth century many astronomical observatory directors sold time to their locales. These markets were blossoming, the result of a new technology that gave them the means to verify their time's accuracy. The concurrent expansion of fire-alarm and police telegraphs, the country's first period of wired cities and towns, provided the means for ensuring consistent local time throughout the various locales.

The enormous growth of American railroads, coupled with the ever-expanding net of telegraphy's "lightning wires," led both astronomers and meteorologists concerned with weather forecasting to lobby for uniform time over larger and larger regions of the United States. However, these burgeoning technologies also fostered new inventions and strong competition in time services by the private sector. By the start of the twentieth century the U.S. Naval Observatory dominated timekeeping, with its "free" signal distributed daily by the Western Union Telegraph Company to thousands of synchronized, self-winding clocks located in every American city.

The story of this country's fundamental change in time reckoning—from local times tied to longitude to a set of four linked zones encompassing the United States—is told in "Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America," (Stanford University Press, 2000). Author Ian Bartky's lecture will highlight the decades-long process, with an emphasis on the Washington scene.

About the Author:

Ian Bartky studied at Berkeley under physical chemist William F. Giauque, receiving his Ph.D. for research in low-temperature calorimetry and thermodynamics. Most of his professional career was at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS); during that time he engaged in laboratory research, was a Public Affairs Fellow at Stanford University, a Department of Commerce Science and Technology Fellow with the U.S. House of Representatives, and the managing editor for the first National Climate Program Plan. He concluded his government career with headquarters management oversight of several basic and applied research areas in the U.S. Army's R&D laboratories.

Bartky's interest in public aspects of time began during his fellowship year on Capitol Hill when, responding to the oil embargo crisis, Congress enacted a year-round, daylight saving time (DST) requirement. He analyzed the first year's effects, and recommended reducing DST's observance period; the law was changed. Soon after he led the NBS team that analyzed DST's effects on energy use and traffic fatalities, testifying at hearings on changes to the law.

After retiring from government service, Bartky continued to study public time, his efforts supported in part by awards from the National Science Foundation and the Trustees of the Dudley Observatory. He has published numerous articles and given many talks on the subject to both specialists and general audiences. His book, "Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America," is available from Stanford University Press.

He remains a member of the American Chemical Society, Sigma Xi, AAAS, the Society for the History of Technology, the Historical Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society, and the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (NAWCC).

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