The Battle with Time

Fun Fact

Most countries in the world use 1-hour standard deviations between time zones. Of course, there are rebel countries, which include: Newfoundland, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Burma, Marquesas, and part of Australia that use half-hour deviations, while Nepal runs on a 45 minute deviation. Since 1949, when China dismantled their system of five time zones, they have only had a single time zone (imagine how varied those hours of day light are!). Another large Asian country with a single time zone is India.

The History of Time Zones

Once upon a time, when departing an airplane you used to have to rewind your watch. Now our cellphones automatically update to the global system of time zones. However, be aware that it might not be as standardized as you once thought!

Time zones were created to help keep a standard time for all processing, legal, commercial, and social within a given area. Time zones tend to follow the boundaries of countries or their subdivisions, instead of adhering to a strict longitudinal line — simplifying transactions within countries and adding an element of ease.

To truly understand how we ended up where we are though, let’s take a brief journey backwards in time.

Before the clock, the most common way of telling time was by a sundial which provided a reader with the “true” solar time. As mechanical clocks became widespread in the 19th Centuray, and so that business within towns could function in a standard fashion, a local mean solar time was set that all mechanical clocks within the area adhered to. However, given the Earth’s non-circular share, the mean solar time can differ up to 15 minutes along the same longitude, while the difference between each degree of geological longitude is 4 minutes from the previous degree at the same latitude.

In 1675 the Royal Observatory was built with the purpose of aiding mariners to determine longitude at sea and the tilt of Earth’s axis. With this construction came Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the first major step in the standardization of time over a large area. GMT was implemented as a standard reference for cities across England.

As railways and telecommunications popularized the need for standard times progressed. On the 1st of December 1847 Britain rail companies implemented strategies to keep GMT, also known as “railway time,” through the use of portable chronometers. By the 2nd of November 1868, the British colony of New Zealand had officially adopted the use of standard time.

Meanwhile the mid-19th Century was a place of confusion in the USA. Each railway company used a different standard time based upon the local time of their headquarters. Charles F. Dowd proposed the 1-hour standard time zones in 1869, which was never implement. Nor was his idea, proposed in 1870, of four standard time zones ever implemented by the US railways. Instead, the US railways implement William F. Allen’s model, which cared less about terrain and longitude, but made the time zones change at important railroad locations and stations.

How did we end up with the near-global system of time zones we have today? The first person to propose worldwide time zones was Quirico Filopanti, an Italian mathematician. In his book Miranda!, published in 1858, he discusses the need for 24 hour time zones, which he names “longitudinal days,” along with the proposal of universal time for astronomy and telegraphy. Sadly, his idea received no public notice.

It was Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming, who is credited with the worldwide system of time zones. An idea he proposed in 1879, following his motion, in 1876, for a global 24-hour clock.

“The International Meridian Conference at Washington DC, USA, adopted a proposal in October 1884. The proposal stated that the prime meridian for longitude and timekeeping should be one that passes through the centre of the transit instrument at the Greenwich Observatory in the United Kingdom (UK). The conference therefore established the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the world’s time standard.”1

With England at the forefront of shipping, trading, and travel, it is important to note the countries’ significance and role in the creation of a standardized system. From the construction of the Royal Observatory in 1675 to the International Meridian Conference in 1884, England continued to have more ships traversing the oceans than all other countries combined. The British Nautical Almanac had also been producing charts based on GMT since 1767. It is because of these facts that Britain became the center of time – literally.

Since the International Meridian Conference of 1884, most countries have adopted a standard hourly time zones. Though not all!

Of course, there are rebel countries, which include: Newfoundland, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Burma, Marquesas, and part of Australia that use half-hour deviations, while Nepal runs on a 45 minute deviation. Since 1949, when China dismantled their system of five time zones, they have only had a single time zone (imagine how varied those hours of day light are!). Another large Asian country with a single time zone is India.

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