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Standardising time: Railways and the electric telegraph

Published: 4 October 2018

For most of human history, knowing what time it was in your town or village was more than enough to regulate daily life.

Time was kept by the Sun, the rising and setting of which divided the day.

But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, this situation soon became unsustainable. 

Luckily, new technology—the electric telegraph—offered an answer to the problem.

How was time organised before the railways?

In June 1841, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel completed the Great Western Railway (GWR) line from London to Bridgewater, a distance of 156 miles.

For the benefit of passengers travelling on this route, the timetable carried an essential note:

LONDON TIME is kept at all the Stations on the Railway, which is about 4 minutes earlier than READING time; 5½ minutes before STEVENTON time; 7½ minutes before CIRENCESTER time; 8 minutes before CHIPPENHAM time; 11 minutes before BATH and BRISTOL time; and 14 minutes before BRIDGEWATER time.

Timetable of the GWR line from London to Bridgewater (1841)

Confusing, clearly—but any traveller who failed to take note of this information risked missing the train. 

An early railway timetable, 1844, with reference to London time Science Museum Group
Pages from 'The New Great Western Railway Timetable, Alteration of trains for the summer 1844'

What was the problem with local time?

Until the mid-19th century, towns relied on local time, set by the Sun, and the time in London was ahead of that of any town further west—hence the need to spell out the differences in the timetable above.

Before the railways became established, it didn't matter that places at different longitudes kept their local time by the Sun. There was no means of transport—or communication over distance—faster than a horse. A few minutes one way or the other between Bristol and Bridgewater was no problem.

A railway network, however, whose trains could cross the country within a day, needed standard time to ensure that passengers departed on schedule and, importantly, avoid collisions.

The story of Manchester's Liverpool Road sundial offers a potted history of railway time

The electric telegraph and Morse code

The electric telegraph would eventually provide the solution to the problems caused by differing local timekeeping. In the 1830s the principles for such a telegraph were already understood, but the challenge was to develop a system that could be used commercially. 

William Fothergill Cooke was one of a number working on the problem. He had seen a demonstration of an experimental telegraph in Germany in 1836. The following year he met Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London. The two formed a business partnership, developing a system in which electromagnetic pulses moved one or more needles on a dial to point to letters of the alphabet. 

At the same time, Scottish inventor and clockmaker Alexander Bain was designing an electric telegraph system which included a method of synchronising networks of electric clocks linked by telegraph wires. However, he lost out on priority to Cooke and Wheatstone and eventually sold the rights to his inventions to them.

In the US, meanwhile, Samuel Morse and his associate Alfred Vail developed a simpler transmitter, the Morse key, which encoded the letters of the alphabet using short and long electrical pulses. His receiver recorded the message on paper as a series of dots and dashes—Morse code. Their system did not reach practical form until 1844.

Cooke and Wheatstone 5-needle telegraph, 1837
King's College, London| Enquiries to Science Museum, London More information about Cooke and Wheatstone 5-needle telegraph, 1837
Type used for original Morse telegraph, 1835
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Type used for original Morse telegraph, 1835

What was the effect of the telegraph on the railways?

Cooke and Wheatstone were certain that the railway companies would be able to make use of their new invention. One of their first commissions was to install an electric telegraph along the new London and Blackwall Railway when it opened in 1840.

This line originally used stationary engines that hauled carriages by cable, connecting the City of London with the passenger pier on the Thames at Blackwall, three and a half miles away.

The design called for some form of remote control, as the trains themselves had no means of starting or stopping. The answer was to install telegraph instruments at each station, sending information to the engineers who started and stopped the winding engines as needed. This was the first commercially successful use of the electric telegraph anywhere in the world.

Five-needle train signalling instrument used on the London and Blackwall Railway, 1840.

Telegraphy made it possible for information to travel much faster than the fastest means of transport—the railway.

The telegraph became essential to the efficient management of newly emerging railways in Britain, but it quickly expanded to more general communication.

How did faster communication change people's lives?

From the 1840s until the second half of the 20th century, the telegraph network was a vital tool for sending news, personal messages and ultimately business information.

Such a message, variously known as a telegram, a cable or a wire, would be delivered by phone or by messenger in a special yellow envelope.

The technology entered the public consciousness through events such as the arrest of John Tawell on 3 January 1845. Tawell had murdered his mistress in Slough, and when his crime was discovered he headed for London by train. Local police telegraphed his description to London, where the police were able to meet the train and arrest him.

Tawell was subsequently convicted and hanged, and the telegraph wires gained further notoriety as "the cords that hanged John Tawell".

When was time finally standardised?

Greenwich Observatory in 1880, illustrated plate taken from Illustrated London News, vol. 80 Science Museum Group Collection
Greenwich Observatory in 1880, illustrated plate taken from Illustrated London News, vol. 80

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, provided the standard for 'London time', counting noon from the Sun's zenith over the 0° meridian.

In 1852, the timekeepers at Greenwich introduced equipment that transmitted accurate time signals throughout the country over the electric telegraph network.

By 1855 nearly all public authorities, such as churches and town halls, set their clocks to 'railway time', displayed on station clocks by station masters who adjusted them according to the signals from Greenwich.

In October 1884, the International Telegraph Union held the International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC.

Among other principles, the conference agreed to divide the world into 24 hourly time zones based on the Greenwich meridian. Over the ensuing decades, most countries in the world gradually adopted the principle.

The introduction of standard time throughout the country was perhaps the most significant social consequence of the invention of the electric telegraph.

Now people are no longer so attuned to the rhythms of the Sun and the seasons, but forced to keep pace with the hands of a clock.