In today's world we have an atomic clock in Ft. Collins, Colorado, that keeps time within 14 millionths of a second of the earth's rotation, and we have clocks and watches that receive a radio signal from the atomic clock. So how, back in 1850, did people know in California that their clocks were three hours behind New York, or did they really care? Did some old fart banker just say my watch has the right time and everyone believed him?
-- Stutz, San Diego
If the old fart banker also owned a railroad, then maybe yeah. For the average walking-around citizen in the mid-1800s, local time (based on the position of the sun, basically), was all that mattered. Precise time didn't drive people's lives the way it does today. The factory whistle blew, you went to work. The church bell rang, you went to services. Who cares what people 100 miles away were doing? The only group that started to get all balled up by the free-form time system was railroaders, especially when the smaller, local rails became linked into larger, longer systems. One small company in the 1860s solved the problem by declaring the station clock in the company's home city the standard for all their schedules. Employees had to coordinate their watches by that clock every day. But that still left the nationwide system pretty fragmented. A railroad passenger riding from the northeast to the southwest coasts would have to reset his watch 20 times. In the early 1880s, a brain trust of railroaders got together and invented what we now call Standard Time and divided the country into time zones. The rest of us whined and complained, but you see how much good it did us.