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Sir Sandford’s GMT revolution
History & Masterpieces

Sir Sandford’s GMT revolution

Friday, 20 June 2008
By Gian Pozzy
Gian Pozzy

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6 min read

The introduction of time zones goes back barely more than 120 years. The idea came about thanks to the expansion of the railroad and the need for trains to run to reliable timetables. The man behind this revolutionary idea was a Scottish-born Canadian by the name of Sir Sandford Fleming.

It seems obvious really: the Earth makes a complete revolution in 24 hours and is divided into 24 time zones. Yet little more than 120 years ago, it didn’t seem quite such a given. Until then each country, each town even, set its own local time based more or less on solar time. Everyone lived pretty much happily with this give-or-take hour, until the railroads arrived. Not the few kilometres of track that ran between Zurich and Baden, and which in 1847 became Switzerland’s first line, the Spanisch-Brötlibahn, but the first transnational and transcontinental lines stretching hundreds and thousands of kilometres.

Punctuality becomes a problem when each town has its own time.
Canada steams ahead

The task of mapping out Canada’s first long-distance railway lines fell to a Scottish-born engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming. In 1880, Canada embarked on the construction of the future Canadian Pacific Railway, and Sir Sanford observed that keeping track of time over such a great distance was nothing if not confusing (there are now six time zones from Newfoundland to the Pacific), making it virtually impossible to draw up reliable timetables. Note that the decision to begin the day at 00:00 and end it at 24:00 isn’t that old. Indeed, many English-speaking countries still use the old Roman, Egyptian and Assyrian system of ante-meridiem (am) and post-meridiem (pm).

Legend has it that Sir Sandford never made a journey without consulting his watch to note down how long it had taken… which didn’t necessarily give him the time on arrival. Punctuality becomes a problem when each town has its own time, as does planning a trip. Indeed, it was after missing a train in Ireland in 1876 that Fleming began to look for a way to standardise time. Speaking before the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto in 1879, he proposed to divide the Earth into 24 time zones of 15° each. The idea won support to the point that the newly-created American and Canadian railroads adopted a system of large time zones. Simple and standardised, railway time became the accepted measure across the North-American continent.

The 1884 revolution

The idea put forward by Sir Sandford was finally adopted in 1884 in Washington, when the 25 nations taking part in the International Meridian Conference decided that the prime meridian of 0° longitude would pass through Greenwich, England. But why Greenwich, which is after all nothing more than a suburb south of London? Firstly because the town had long been in possession of a renowned observatory, and secondly because this was a time when Britannia still ruled the waves and the law of the British Empire was observed all around the world. However, the Conference also had a more practical reason in mind: the meridian that lies directly opposite the prime meridian is also the international date line, which happens to be bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a largely unpopulated area which, at the time of the Meridian Conference, barely registered on the international political spectrum.

One country that made no secret of its exasperation to see Greenwich promoted to prime meridian was France, and until 1891 French towns continued to calculate their own time based on the position of the sun at noon, or solar time. Except that the sun rises 50 minutes earlier in Strasbourg than in Brest which, in the railroad era, proved slightly inconvenient. In 1891 the French government therefore instated legal time, but refused any talk of the nation’s eternal rival, Albion, and its time. Instead, the whole of France adopted Paris time, despite a difference of 9 minutes and 21 seconds with the time in the majority of western States. France continued to refer to Paris time for 20 years before finally passing a law that adopted international time zones on March 9th 1914 (just in time to coordinate allied manoeuvres in the First World War…)

Proof that it don't have to be broke to fix it!
Three-letter words

France took offence again in 1972, when Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was replaced by the more precise Coordinated Universal Time (CUT). France balked at the idea of using a foreign acronym but, as the world speaks English, there was no question of replacing it with the French equivalent TUC. A compromise was reached in the form of the totally meaningless UTC!

Today, the Earth is divided into 24 time zones corresponding to the same number of local times. In theory, each zone measures 15° although there are significant variations to accommodate borders and political imperatives. China, for example, extends across four time zones but only uses one. Russia takes only nine of its 11 time zones into account and how they are calculated defies comprehension. India, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela have offset their time zones by half an hour; Nepal and the Chatham Islands, off the coast of New Zealand, by three-quarters. Proof that it don’t have to be broke to fix it!

Still, the most bizarre situation can be found, as one might expect, on the international date line, in the tiny island republics of the Pacific Ocean. Imagine a traveller flying from Tonga to Samoa (2 hours). If he or she leaves Tonga on Sunday at noon, they will indeed arrive in Samoa at 2 o’clock… on Saturday afternoon! Same again when travelling from Hawaii to Christmas Island. Say our traveller sets out on Sunday morning at 10 o’clock to arrive on Monday at one in the afternoon. Stopover and back to Honolulu, where it’s still Sunday, late afternoon! This strange particularity is at the centre of a 1994 historical fiction by Umberto Eco, L’isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before). However, the intrigue takes place in the 17th century, long before time zones existed. Nor were they any more in force when Phileas Fogg embarked on his voyage “Around the World in Eighty Days” in Jules Verne’s famous novel. Because they travel east, Phileas and his faithful companion Passepartout gain a day which enables Fogg to arrive back at the Reform Club in the nick of time to win his wager.

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