When railway tracks began criss-crossing the country, time suddenly mattered in a way it never had before. Trains travelled long distances and required precise timetables. People needed to know when exactly a train was arriving, but more importantly, when a train was departing. If they missed a train, they might be stuck for hours—or days. Railway safety also relied upon timetable precision. It became essential to establish a ‘railway time’, with the same clock used all along the line.
Many railways had their terminus in a capital city so they set their clocks by that city’s time. ‘City time’ in a capital city like Sydney, Australia, was determined by an observatory that had been established to provide the exact time for shipping. As mentioned in my Rave Review about Dava Sobel’s Longitude (Volume 1, Issue 3), ships’ captains needed accurate clocks so they could set their chronometers and thereby calculate longitude—without which they were sailing blind, often with disastrous results.
Today, the four capital cities in the eastern states of Australia are set at the same time—in winter at least. Noon in Sydney (NSW) is also noon in Brisbane (Queensland), Melbourne (Victoria), and Hobart (Tasmania). But, prior to the adoption of the Australian standard times zones in 1895, noon in Sydney was 11.35am in Melbourne, 11.44am in Hobart and 12.07pm in Brisbane.
Confusingly, Bourke in Western NSW managed the extraordinary achievement of having three ‘times’ in operation at the same time. The railways kept Adelaide time (which was originally one hour behind Sydney); the post office kept Sydney time; and the mines kept local time. At what time should the pubs close? Who cared? Easier to leave them open!
So next time you see an historical reference to a ‘time’, think about what it meant. We tend to take ‘time’ for granted but it is a more complex subject than most of us have previously recognised.