On Time National Museum of American History

Marking Time
  The Race Is On
  Watches by Machine
  Like Clockwork
Synchronizing Time


The Most Reliable Time

Pocket watch
Pocket watch ordered in 1853 after the August 12th train wreck by the Vermont Central Railroad; by Barraud & Lund, London, for its Boston agent, William Bond & Sons
Gift of Dana J. Blackwell
Train Wreck
On August 12, 1853, two trains on the Providence & Worcester Railroad were headed toward each other on a single track. The conductor of one train thought there was time to reach the switch to a track to Boston before the approaching train was scheduled to pass through. But the conductor's watch was slow. As his speeding train rounded a blind curve, it collided head-on with the other train—fourteen people were killed. The public was outraged. All over New England, railroads ordered more reliable watches for their conductors and issued stricter rules for running on time.

Railroad Time
Early railroads operated on their own time—commonly a clock in the superintendent's office set to a local time, which differed from town to town. As the number of railroads increased, so did the need for better coordination. In New England, many railroads agreed to synchronize their clocks and watches to a single standard time. They obtained that time—derived from celestial observations—via telegraph from the Harvard College Observatory. An astronomical regulator, or precision clock, at the family firm of the observatory's director also displayed the standard time.

Astronomical regulator
Trade card
Astronomical regulator, about 1866; from William Bond & Sons, Boston
Lent by the family of
Suren H. Hekimian

Trade card with noon chart, about 1860.
Courtesy of NMAH Archives Center, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana
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Smithsonian National Museum of American History