A BIT OF RAILROAD SLANG
Charles Dickens had described the coming of the railway to London’s Euston station in a powerful passage in Dombey & Son (1848). He described the havoc and dislocation brought to Stagg’s Garden (Camden) as an almighty canyon that was cut through the existing streets.
Dickens was in fact a prolific user of railways, both in Britain and on the occasion of his visits to the United States. In 1865, however, he was involved in a tragedy that would change his life: Dickens was returning from the continent with Ellen Ternan, and her mother, on 9 June 1865. Near Staplehurst in Kent, a gang of workers was busy repairing the track – they had, however, misread the timetable and had thought there was no train due. They had removed a section of track, and the train, hitting this missing section, crashed down into the valley of the river Beult.
Composite photograph of three prints: the South Eastern Railway's fast 'tidal' train from Folkestone, carrying 110 passengers returning from Paris via Boulogne, derailed on the bridge over the River Beult near Staplehurst on 9 June 1865, killing 10 passengers and injuring 49 others. Among the survivors was the author Charles Dickens. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Dickens’ carriage was precariously close to the edge – he and his companions managed to climb out and he then went down into the valley to help the victims. Dickens later remembered that he had left the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend in the carriage, and he climbed back into the wreckage to retrieve it.
The incident marked him – he had flashbacks for the rest of his life, and the year after the crash he published his eeriest short story, The Signalman: the chilling tale of a lonely signalman, haunted by an apparition that appears just before tragedy strikes.
The railroads gave us standardized time zones.
Britain adopted a standardized time system in 1847, but it took nearly 40 more years before the United States joined the club. America still ran on local time, which could vary from town to town (and within cities themselves), making scheduling arrival, departure, and connection times nearly impossible. After years of lobbying for standardized time, representatives from all major U.S. railways met on October 11, 1883, for what became known as the General Time Convention, where they adopted a proposal that would establish five time zones spanning the country: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. The plan originally called for a fifth time zone, the Intercontinental, which was instituted several years later and became known as Atlantic Time. At noon on November 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory sent out a telegraph signal marking 12:00 pm ET, and railway office in cities and towns across the country calibrated their clocks accordingly. However, it wasn’t until 1918 that standard time became the official law of the land, when Congress passed legislation recognizing the time zone system (and instituting a new “daylight savings time” designed to conserve resources for the World War I war effort)