This Day in History – November 18th

1883 – Railroads across Canada and the United States implement five standard time zones – Telling time used to be quite a bit more difficult than just looking at your watch or your cellphone. For a long time, keeping accurate track of time depended on astronomers viewing the position of the sun and stars at observatories, such as at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. But, as people began travelling rapidly from town to town, or sending messages great distances, thanks to the newly invented railroad and telegram, it became evident that the observation of time varied wildly from settlement to settlement – not to mention from colony to colony within the British Empire. Engineers and academics in North America began meeting to determine how a unified system of time zones could be implemented across the entire railroad industry. Scottish-born Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming, an important figure in developing the Canadian Pacific Railroad, was one of the most influential voices in favour of adopting a standard or ‘mean time’ in a set location, with hourly variations from that. On this date in 1883, railroads in Canada and the United States established four time zones for the continental United States (Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern Time), plus Intercolonial Time for eastern Canada, after the Maritimes-based Intercolonial Railway. The system was devised by American railwayman William F. Allen, who figured that once enough cities had joined on, holdouts would have no choice but to eventually jump on the bandwagon. Nov. 18, 1883 has been called “the Day with Two Noons,” as each railroad station clock was reset to standard-time noon when each new time zone reached 12:00 pm. The following year, an international conference was held in Washington, D.C., with attending countries agreeing to and gradually adopting Fleming’s plan of 24 time zones around the world, each 15° of longitude wide, with the first centred on the Greenwich meridian.

1928 – The animated short “Steamboat Willie,” Disney’s first synchronized sound cartoon, is released – Long before “Steamboat Willie” was selected for preservation by the United States’ National Film Registry for it being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” it was just a dream of director Walt Disney and his animator partner Ub Iwerks. In 1927, Disney saw the Al Jolson musical film “The Jazz Singer,” which was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized sound. Disney and Iwerks had recently created a new animated character called Mickey Mouse, but his first two shorts, “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” which were silent, were not well-received or picked up for distribution. Disney saw now that synchronized sound was the future of cinema, and he and Iwerks got to work making the seven-minute “Steamboat Willie,” which features music, sound effects, and character sounds – though very little in the way of actual dialogue. All the voices in the film, which also includes an appearance by Minnie Mouse, were done by Disney himself. On this date in 1928, the film premiered in New York City at “Universal’s Colony Theater,” which today is known as The Broadway Theatre. It played for two weeks ahead of the feature, “Gang War”. Disney was paid $500 per week for the short’s two-week run, then a considerable amount of money for an animator. “Steamboat Willie” was an immediate hit, and led to the two previous shorts being produced with sound and widely released. Today, the Walt Disney Company is one of the world’s leading entertainment companies, and Nov. 18 is treated as the birthday for their primary mascot, Mickey Mouse. That makes today Mickey Mouse’s 88th birthday!

1963 – The first push-button telephones go into service – Long before cell phones were in just about everybody’s pockets or purses, if you wanted to call up a friend or neighbour, you had to use a rotary-style telephone, which was invented by American Almon Brown Strowger in 1891. The Bell System in the United States embraced dialled, automatic switching in 1919. But new technology for more easily connecting callers at greater distances came along, including “dual-tone multi-frequency” phones, more commonly known as “Touch-Tone,” and were shown off at such technology expos as the Bell Systems pavilion at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. Then, on April 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy dialled “1964” on a Touch-Tone phone in the Oval Office to start a countdown for the 1964 World’s Fair. On this date in 1963, the first electronic push-button phone system with touch-tone dialling was commercially offered by Bell Telephone to customers in areas around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These phones, the Western Electric 1500, had just 10 buttons. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that the 12-button phones we’re more familiar with, which include ‘#’ and ‘*’ keys, were introduced with the 2500 model. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a majority of consumers had made the switch to push-button telephones. Pittsburgh has continued to be a site for the early introduction of new technologies; on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, Uber began offering driverless vehicles to users of their service in Pittsburgh who opted to participate in a test program. While the vehicles contain features that allow them to navigate on their own, an Uber engineer still sits in the driver’s seat ready to take over in case something goes wrong.

1978 – In Guyana, American cult leader Jim Jones oversees a mass murder-suicide that leaves over 900 people dead – Charismatic left-wing religious leader Jim Jones founded a new religious movement, the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, in his home state of Indiana in 1955. The group moved to California, spreading throughout the state and setting up a headquarters in San Francisco in the early 1970s. At its peak, the Peoples Temple had about 20,000 members. In 1974, the group began renting land in a remote area of Guyana in South America, calling the settlement the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project or, informally, “Jonestown.” The population of the settlement was small at first, but as the media began to look on the group with more scrutiny, Jones himself and many of his followers left for Guyana. They were promised a socialist paradise far from the growing corruption of corporate America, but that dream became a nightmare on this date in 1978. On Nov. 14, 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Jonestown to investigate claims of abuse by the Peoples Temple including beatings and murder. While there, he met members of the cult who wished to return to California with him. On Saturday, Nov. 18, as Ryan and several defected members tried to reach the local airstrip, they were confronted by Temple security guards who opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others. That night, Jones gathered his congregation together and convinced them to take their own lives by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. At the compound, 909 people, including 276 children, were later found dead. Jones himself was killed by a gunshot to the head, likely self-inflicted. The event was the largest single loss of U.S. civilian lives until Sept. 11, 2001.

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