Monthly Archives: May 2024

Time zones

In the September of 1881 Sandford Fleming, a Scots born inventor, gave a paper to the International Geographical Congress in Venice. Entitled ‘The adoption of a prime meridian to be common to all the nations. [And] the establishment of standard meridians for the regulation of time’, the paper was to address the pressing need for a universal time, set from one location, in a World increasingly linked by communication and transport. In the speech Fleming alludes to the difficulties in selecting just one meridian, ‘Repeated efforts have been made to gain general concurrence to the adoption of one of the existing national meridians, but these proposals have tended to retard a settlement of the question by awakening national sensibilities, and thus creating a barrier difficult to remove’. Fleming’s hopes for an outcome to this problem were soon answered, in 1884 at an International Meridian Conference in Washington delegates agreed to Greenwich being the prime meridian, 0ᵒ, the place where everywhere else takes its measure.

One of the consequences of this idea of a global time was the creation of time zones, the important way of keeping time in relation to the position of the Sun. A system of 24 time zones was first suggested by the Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti but it was a proposal by Fleming in 1876 of a 24 zone system, which each zone 15 degrees longitude that has been gradually adopted, and feature in these two zone maps.

Planisphère des fuseaux horaires, 1917. B1 (1749)

This map is from the Ministère de la Marine, the department in the French Government dealing with the navy and colonies that in its original form dates back to the 1600s. The map shows 24 time zones with duplication at either end and includes both the ‘Méridien international de Greenwich‘  and, halfway between the two Greenwichs shown,  the ‘Antiméridien de Greenwich‘. A French map showing the World like this was only recently possible as the country had only agreed to the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian in 1911.  The simplicity of the design can’t hide though the complex exemptions across the World due to sizes of some countries and old rules in place. Take the Netherlands, which ran on Amsterdam Time,  20 minutes ahead of Greenwich up until the Second World War.

La Mondiale riforma del tempo coi 24 fusi… c1894. B1 (1760)

Simplicity isn’t a term you could use to describe our second map. ‘La Mondiale riforma del tempo coi 24 fusi e loro 24 simboli orari : Di Creazione ed Organizzazione definitiva del Prof. D. Errico Frassi Comense’,  is a wonderfully confusing series of diagrams explaining the different proposals for zonal systems between 1873 and 1894. As well as a 24 zonal southern view of the World (top right) there are also two hemisphere maps at the bottom showing a more conventional zonal view of the World. At top left is a guide to the 24 time zones but the text is near impossible to read due to size and fading. The map is a jumble of information, and the confusion isn’t helped by the lettered order of the zones, which isn’t alphabetical but according to the areas or locations the zone goes through, so for example zone XIII is S, for the Sandwich Islands (an old name for Hawaii), while zone XIV is Y for the Yukon and XV is C for Colombia.

One of the earliest attempts to introduce a time common to all was called railway time. Introduced by the Great Western Railway company in 1840 railway time was designed to standardize time across Britain, which up until that point was set by local clocks, working at different speeds according to time set, condition and weather. As railways increased along with railway journeys the need for a standard set time according to one precise clock became paramount, without this in place coordinating rail journeys would be impossible and the risk of accidents due to inaccurate timetables would only increase. Soon the other train companies adopted this fixed time, and other countries followed the practise from the 1850s onwards. The introduction of railway time, along with the increased connectivity of the World through the telegram and telegraph*, paved the way for what we now call Coordinated Universal Time. The inset shows the first of a series of timetables  by the firm Hotson’s, from 1863. Inside are a series of timetables showing the times of stops at each station along a route.

*This blog was written on the 24th May 2024, the 180th anniversary of the first telegraph message, sent by Samuel Morse from Washington to Baltimore.