The Man Who Sold Time

Humans have tried to master time since the dawn of history. In early centuries people used sundials, later came candles and water clocks, by the fourteenth century mechanical clocks delivered a surge in the accuracy of timekeeping. The accuracy of mechanical timepieces doubled every thirty years from that point all the way up until the twentieth century, but there was a significant difference to the world we live in today.

As late as the 1860s there was no concept of standardized time. Every town and village followed it’s own schedule sometimes vastly different to it’s closest neighbors. Even large businesses sometimes worked to their own time-schedules which is why many older commercial buildings have clocks set high on them to allow workers to know what time it was in the factory.

At the time it didn’t really matter very much but then something happened which made the synchronization of time a vital ingredient of life. The age of steam and in particular, the development of commercial, long-distance railroads.

For railways to be effective trains had to run on schedule. What’s more, as many trains shared the same lines and railroad traffic increased they had to be precisely timed to prevent disaster and often failed to do that with deadly results.

The answer to this problem was to synchronize time using zones. Something we take for granted now, but in the 19th century was revolutionary.

First adopted in Great Britain and commonly known as “Railway Time” reflecting the importance to the railways(railroads), the idea spread to other countries as the rail networks spread. widely through Europe and The U.S. needed similar methods of coordinating its services.

Samuel_Pierpont_LangleySamuel Pierpont Langley was born in 1834 and graduated in Boston, Ma. After graduation he took a position as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory, before taking the position of Professor of Mathematics for the United States Naval Academy.

Shortly after taking his position in 1867, he was made the Director of Allegheny Observatory and assigned the task of restoring the facilities. The observatory had originally been founded by a group of wealthy businessmen, but interest had faded and with it the funds required for maintenance.

With the help of William Thaw, a pitsburgh industrialist, Lamgley was able improve the observatory’s equipment and add new observation apparatus, including a telescope designed to observe stars as they crossed the celestial meridian.

Using the new instruments Langley created what came to be known of as the “Allegheny Time System” which defined standard timezones was a new concept and just what the railroads needed, He began selling his time services to the Pennsylvania Railroad, providing them with regular time synchronization signals transmitted by telegraph.Eventually the service extended to cover over 2,500 miles (4000 km) and included over 300 telegraph offices, broadcasting signals to all railroads in both the U.S. and Canada.

Initially the signals broadcast indicated noon, Eastern Standard Time and railroads would synchronize their schedules based on this. Later two signals were used. The sales were highly profitable and covered both Langley’s salary and the observatories bills, allowing the institution to expand it’s facilities.

Langley was a confirmed bachelor and an extremely shy man. He covered his shyness by maintaining a severe dignity and irascible personality that often offended those around him, though people close to him found him charming and warmhearted.

Once the observatory was secure, he expanded his work into researches into the sun producing detailed drawings of sunspot activity and other solar phenomena that were unknown at the time.This included the invention of the Bolorometer, am instrument that enabled extremely accurate measurement of temperatures (as small as 0,000001 degrees C) and allowed detailed calculations of the amount of solar energy hitting the Earth. It also provided information used to make the first estimates of global warming.

samuel-pierpont-langley-1834-1906-first-everettLater he researched airplane design in competition with the Wright brothers and produced several full sized powered prototypes of this designs, though none were very successful. Despite attempts by the Smithsonian and Glenn Curtiss who tried to fight the Wright brothers’ patent, it was awarded to them.

During the testing of his airplanes, Langley was introduced to writer Rudyard Kipling by Theodore Roosevelt. Kipling witnessed one of the flight trials and noted that the lack of success was a source of amusement to members of the press. Langley told Kipling that although he himself would never see it, that Kipling would live to see the day of the aeroplane become established.

In 1887, Langley became secretary of the Smithsonian Institute and founded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, though he continued his post at Allegheny too.

During his lifetime Langley was widely recognized by other scientists and he won a number of awards. The Allegheny Time standard continued to be used until the establishment of national standard time by the U.S. government in 1920.s


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