Before clocks were invented, people marked the time of day with apparent solar time (also called "true" solar time) – for example, the time on a sundial – which was typically different for every settlement.
When well-regulated mechanical clocks became widespread in the early 19th century, each city began to use some local mean solar time. Apparent and mean solar time can differ by up to around 15 minutes (as described by the equation of time) due to the non-circular shape of the Earth's orbit around the sun (Eccentricity) and the tilt of the Earth's axis (Obliquity). Mean solar time has days of equal length, and the difference between the two averages to zero after a year.
Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was established in 1675 when the Royal Observatory was built as an aid to mariners to determine longitude at sea, providing a standard reference time when each city in England kept a different local time.
Local solar time became increasingly awkward as rail transport and telecommunications improved, because clocks differed between places by an amount corresponding to the difference in their geographical longitude, which varied by four minutes for every degree of longitude. The difference between New York and Boston is about two degrees or 8 minutes, the difference between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, is about 7 degrees or 28 minutes. Bristol is 2°35′ W(est) of Greenwich (East London), so when it is noon in Bristol, it is about 10 minutes past noon in London. The use of time zones smooths out these differences.
The first adoption of a standard time was on December 1, 1847, in Great Britain by railway companies using GMT kept by portable chronometers. The first of these companies to adopt standard time was the Great Western Railway (GWR) in November 1840. This quickly became known as Railway Time. About August 23, 1852, time signals were first transmitted by telegraph from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Even though 98% of Great Britain's public clocks were using GMT by 1855, it was not made Britain's legal time until August 2, 1880. Some old British clocks from this period have two minute hands—one for the local time, one for GMT.
The increase in worldwide communication had further increased the need for interacting parties to communicate mutually comprehensible time references to one another. The problem of differing local times could be solved across larger areas by synchronizing clocks worldwide, but in many places the local time would then differ markedly from the solar time to which people were accustomed.
On November 2, 1868, the then-British colony of New Zealand officially adopted a standard time to be observed throughout the colony, and was perhaps the first country to do so. It was based on the longitude 172°30′ East of Greenwich, that is 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT. This standard was known as New Zealand Mean Time.
Timekeeping on the American railroads in the mid-19th century was somewhat confused. Each railroad used its own standard time, usually based on the local time of its headquarters or most important terminus, and the railroad's train schedules were published using its own time. Some junctions served by several railroads had a clock for each railroad, each showing a different time.
Charles F. Dowd proposed a system of one-hour standard time zones for American railroads about 1863, although he published nothing on the matter at that time and did not consult railroad officials until 1869. In 1870 he proposed four ideal time zones (having north–south borders), the first centered on Washington, D.C., but by 1872 the first was centered 75°W of Greenwich, with geographic borders (for example, sections of the Appalachian Mountains). Dowd's system was never accepted by American railroads. Instead, U.S. and Canadian railroads implemented a version proposed by William F. Allen, the editor of the Traveler's Official Railway Guide. The borders of its time zones ran through railroad stations, often in major cities. For example, the border between its Eastern and Central time zones ran through Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Charleston. It was inaugurated on Sunday, November 18, 1883, also called "The Day of Two Noons", when each railroad station clock was reset as standard-time noon was reached within each time zone. The zones were named Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Within a year 85% of all cities with populations over 10,000, about 200 cities, were using standard time.] A notable exception was Detroit (which is about half-way between the meridians of eastern time and central time), which kept local time until 1900, then tried Central Standard Time, local mean time, and Eastern Standard Time before a May 1915 ordinance settled on EST and was ratified by popular vote in August 1916. The confusion of times came to an end when Standard zone time was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918.