(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Time zones can be traced back to the early days of rail. Before then, cities and towns set their clocks by the sun, with 12 o’clock noon corresponding to the sun’s highest point. People set their own timepieces by the town clock. Anyone traveling east or west by coach, horse or foot simply adjusted their timepiece, if they had one at all, at the next town.
The railways brought pressure to standardize time. England’s first intercity railroad linked boom cotton town Manchester with thriving port Liverpool in 1830. Within a decade, railways were springing up everywhere. Inconsistencies in local time became a nightmare for railway companies trying to devise timetables. For example the difference between London and Plymouth times was 16 minutes, with a number of other local times along the way. People needed to know what time a train arrived or departed. Using local clock time made it hard to do so, especially for trains traveling east or west. Even more important were safety issues. Two trains could be on different times heading towards each other on the same track.
The Great Western Railway adopted London time in November 1840. This was the world’s first system of standard time and first time zone. Other railways quickly followed and by 1847 the timetables of most English railways used London or Greenwich time. After initial resistance, most communities aligned their clocks to agree with railway time. By 1855, an estimated 98 per cent of public clocks in Britain were set to Greenwich time, although some had two minute hands, one showing London time and the other retaining the old local time.
In America, the eastern third of the country was a spaghetti network of over 30,000 miles of track by 1860. A line to the west coast was laid in the 1860s, and the network continued to expand until it crisscrossed the whole country by the 1880s. Distances were immense compared with those in Britain, and in 1870 the United States had 200 local times and 80 railroad times. Train travel chaos was inevitable with such a system. Anyone planning a trip of any distance and who had to make connections to different lines needed a wad of timetables and the ability to perform complicated calculations to get to their ultimate destination. Stations had clocks lined up along their walls showing the time of each rail company or line and perhaps local time. St Louis for example had six different railroad times.
Before the railways, around 1809, amateur astronomer William Lambert approached Congress to set up time zones based on meridians. In about 1863, educator Charles Dowd proposed dividing the country into four time zones, with an hour’s difference between each one. From 1869, he consulted with the railroads, wrote newspaper and journal articles, lectured, and prepared detailed rail timetables. He produced a booklet, “A System of National Time for Railroads”, using Washington DC time as the base. He took it to Congress in 1870, before completing a revised version in 1872 based on Greenwich time.
Dowd got support from other quarters, including railway companies, the Canadian Institute, the American Meteorological Society, and the Society of Civil Engineers. People started suggesting railroad time be made the only time. William Allen, secretary of the American Railroad Association, lobbied long and hard for a system of time zones. He and Dowd finally got their way in 1883 when a meeting in Chicago of US and Canadian railroad company bosses decided to introduce a system of time zones. It was very close to what Dowd had proposed 11 years earlier and was introduced on 18 November of that year. The new time zones were soon adopted by most communities.
Britain and America weren’t the only two countries to use standard time or time zones. Railways spread rapidly in all continents in the mid to late nineteenth century, and railway time or some sort of unified time system or a time zone usually replaced or ran alongside local time. Many countries used the local time of their capital city as the basis, such as Rome from 1866. The Swedes picked the meridian halfway between Stockholm and Göteborg in 1879. North German railways introduced standard time in 1874. New Zealand was the first country to use standard time for the whole nation, in 1868, setting it 11.5 hours ahead of Greenwich time.
By the 1870s, the idea of a world system of standard time and time zones was brewing. In 1871, the first International Geographical Congress at Antwerp in Belgium decided that the Greenwich meridian should be the zero meridian or starting point for longitude within 15 years. The IGC met again in Rome in 1875 and confirmed that Greenwich should be the prime meridian.
In Toronto in November 1876, Canadian engineer and inventor Sir Sandford Fleming delivered a paper, “Uniform non-local time (terrestrial time)”, to the Canadian Institute. He was a keen supporter of railway time zones across North America, but at this session he proposed a system of standard time zones right around the world instead of each country going its own way. He advocated 24 time zones, each equal to 15 degrees of longitude or one hour, and promoted his views at subsequent conferences, including the Geographical Congress at Venice in 1881 and the Geodetic Conference at Rome in 1883.
After being a key player in the implementation of American railway time on 18 November 1883, Fleming was instrumental in convening the Prime Meridian Conference at Washington in October 1884, a meeting called by US president Chester Alan Arthur. At the time, ships trying to get their bearings were confronted with 11 reference meridians: Berlin, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Greenwich, Lisbon, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, St Petersburg, Stockholm and Tokyo. Also, Jerusalem had been favoured as the prime meridian by some religious groups. Various other cities and places had been used as the reference meridian from time to time. Fleming wanted the prime meridian to run through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, exactly 180 degrees from Greenwich. The conference voted Greenwich as the prime meridian and passed a number of other related resolutions such as a universal day.
Standard time and 24 times zones were proposed by Fleming and one other delegate but were rejected as a local issue and outside the scope of the conference, which was to choose a prime meridian. Contrary to popular belief, the meeting did not adopt standard time or time zones. Ultimately, this would be up to individual countries and their governments, although the groundwork had been laid by the Prime Meridian Conference and the likes of Fleming. New Zealand (1868), Britain (1880) and unofficially the United States and Canada (1883) were already on standard time and had worked out their time zones. Interestingly, US legislation to recognize time zones didn’t occur until the Standard Time Act in 1918. The legislation only came about due to the push the adopt daylight saving time, which couldn’t start until an official system of time zones and standard time was in place.
A few countries implemented standard time based on Greenwich mean time and chose their time zone straight after the 1884 conference. Most took much longer. Governments were lobbied by the railways, business interests and city dwellers who wanted standard time, as well as by various civic and religious leaders and farmers who often didn’t want it, before finally passing legislation. In many countries, the changeover in practical terms was even slower, especially in rural areas. There seemed to be little or no relation between the time it took a country to adopt standard time and its size, wealth or technological advancement. Afghanistan adopted it in 1890 but Netherlands didn’t use it until 1940. France was relatively slow (1911) as it was reluctant to recognize Greenwich as the prime meridian.
By the 1920s, all major countries were on standard time and using time zones based on the Greenwich meridian, although allowing for country and regional boundaries in many cases. Countries and regions gave their own names to their particular time zones, for example Eastern Standard Time (eastern part of Australia), Central European Time, Alaska Standard Time, Beijing Time (or Chinese Standard Time) and numerous others. Some countries were still making the change in the 1940s and 1950s. The last country to adopt standard time and a time zone was Liberia, in 1972, nearly ninety years after the Prime Meridian Conference.
Time zones generally follow national or state boundaries, but also natural features such as rivers or mountains. Sometimes the choice of zones is skewed by countries opting to go with times used in neighboring countries. In the United States, time zone boundaries go through the middle of eleven states. Time zone boundaries for many countries have changed considerably over the years and are still occurring. Most changes tend to be in a westerly direction and are often for the purpose of saving daylight. This results in a skewing of zones and is evident in places like the United States, Canada, southern South America, Western Europe, parts of Africa, as well as Russia, China and Mongolia.
Shifting zones hasn’t proved beneficial to all countries. The United Kingdom and Ireland trialed Central European Time in 1968, aligning with most of Europe in the GMT+1 zone. The experiment was unpopular and ended in 1971 due to an increase in road accidents on dark winter mornings, many involving children walking to school. Portugal too tried Central time in the periods 1966-1976 and 1992-1996. All eleven Russian time zones were moved an hour ahead of the old standard time in 1930 for economic reasons. Russia has never quite made the full transition to time zones. Moscow mean time, used throughout the whole of Russia from 1880 to 1917, still operates alongside standard time. Clocks at rail stations and airports are set to Moscow time, which can differ from local time by up to nine hours. Radio stations across the country refer to Moscow time. China, despite its size, changed from a five time zone system to a single time zone in 1949.
Several countries don’t quite use standard time or time zones in the way they were originally intended. Israel, for example, starts its day at 6 pm. In essence, this puts it eight hours ahead of Greenwich instead of two. Half hour deviations from standard time are used by Newfoundland, Iran, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Australia’s Northern Territory and South Australia, and a number of islands. Nepal and Chatham Islands east of New Zealand use quarter hour deviations. Certain islands in the Pacific use GMT+13 and +14 rather than GMT-11 and -10. Thus there are now about 39 time zones, the earliest and latest being 26 hours apart. On a global scale, three different days exist at any one time and any calendar date extends for 50 hours around the world.
Overall, standard time and time zones work very well, considering that decisions have been up to each individual national and sometimes state government around the world. The system isn’t perfect but there is broad coordination in time among all countries. It is perhaps one of the few things virtually the whole world agrees on.