by Bruce Dunlavy
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Until the second half of the Nineteenth Century, it didn’t much matter what time it was anywhere but where you were. Time was always “local time.” If the sun was halfway through its daily course through the heavens, it was noon. Midway between sunset and sunrise was midnight – whether you were in Boston, Paris, or Singapore. Even the date crawled around the world with the passage of midnight.
Local time was paramount, because it really didn’t matter what the time was anywhere else. Until the widespread use of railroads and telegraphs, the speed with which people and information could be transported had not changed since the domestication of the horse. Nothing and no one traveled any faster than a horse could run or a ship could sail, so communication was not instantaneous and people could not go any significant distance in less than a day.
The development of the system of time zones came at the behest of the railroads, which needed to coordinate timetables that would be reliable countrywide. “Local time” had been fine for horse-drawn stagecoaches, but trains traveling 100 or more miles in a day made predictable scheduling necessary. The railroads instituted a system of time zones across the USA, but there were more than 100 of them, causing continuing adjustment and readjustment on a moving train.
In 1883, the USA and Canada devised a system of four time zones across the countries, so that clock adjustments would be much less frequent. Each time zone was approximately one twenty-fourth of the circumference of the Earth, which meant that at any given place the same clock time would occur each day consistent with solar time.
Meanwhile, Great Britain had already adopted a standard time across England, Scotland, and Wales based on what was dubbed the Prime Meridian. A meridian is a line of longitude, and the “prime” one was assigned to Greenwich, where the Royal Observatory was located. The solar time at Greenwich was the basis for determining time for all other places.
A few months after the North American time zones had been established, the United Kingdom proposed an international time system. Since the UK had the most accurate observatory had the majority of worldwide shipping using the Greenwich Prime Meridian as a basis, it was proposed that other nations adhere to it as well. Soon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was designated the starting point for all local time determinations among participating countries. Each locality adopted a time system some number of hours behind or ahead of GMT. Today, GMT is more often called Coordinated Universal Time (UCT), and it is used worldwide by airplane pilots and air traffic controllers so that all flyers and all flights are operating on the same time.
In the early Twentieth Century, the USA legally instituted time zones when Congress passed the Standard Time Act of 1918 (a/k/a the Calder Act). The Calder Act established nine time zones and assigned regulation of them to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Thus official national time designation in the United States is barely a century old.
Image credit: worldatlas.com
Also in the Calder Act was the introduction of Daylight Saving Time (DST), as a result of American entry into World War I. Europe had implemented DST earlier in the war believing that a lengthening of daylight during the workday would conserve fuel and increase productivity. In 1919, DST was repealed in the USA and was not uniformly re-introduced until 1942, again as a consequence of war.
In 1918, DST was a relatively new idea, having been proposed by New Zealand entomologist George Hudson in 1895, when he presented a paper suggesting that advancing clocks two hours would result in two hours more daylight after the work day was over. There is a persistent story that DST had been first proposed by Benjamin Franklin in the 1780s, but that is not the case. He did write a satirical piece suggesting that the French – not known for a gung-ho attitude – ought to get out of bed a couple of hours earlier so they could accomplish more. He was not serious, and no more was said about it.
Until 1966, DST in the United States was haphazard. Without a national regulation, it was a local option, which meant that unless there was State law to the contrary any particular place could decide if it wanted to adopt DST. For example, the town I lived in did not have DST, but some nearby places did. Thus in an hour’s drive one might change time designations two or three times. Phone calls setting up meetings assembling people from different places usually included some form of the question, “Do you mean 1:30 my time or 1:30 your time?” The Uniform Time Act of 1966 required that DST be adopted Statewide or not at all.
All was in order until the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, when concerns about fuel savings caused sporadic implementation of DST during winter months in the 1970s. There were arguments in favor (reduced energy use, lower violent crime rates) and against (increased deaths among children walking to school in the early-morning darkness).
DST use has been debated off and on ever since, and some States are pushing to either make it permanent or abolish it altogether rather than having to change the time twice every year. The leading proponents of DST today seem to be in the outdoor entertainment industry. More hours of daylight during summer evenings means more hours to spend money at amusement parks, sporting events, and other such activities.
I propose a different and more sweeping change. Modern life is not like life 100 years ago. Work schedules are no longer as consistent as they used to be and individuals more frequently adjust their activities and timetables.
Let us revisit Ben Franklin’s satiric piece about just getting up earlier or later and mix it with the railroads’ desire for predictable time across wide expanses of territory. How about one time for the entire world? If it is noon in Tokyo, why should it not also be noon in Havana?
Consider the implications for making commerce and travel simpler. No more trying to figure out what time it is in New York when you are in Mumbai (Let’s see, what time zone are they in, and are they on DST now?). Figuring out how long it takes to fly from Singapore to Santiago becomes effortless – if you leave at 3:00 a.m. and arrive at 7:00 p.m., the flight is 16 hours long. There would be no international dateline; it would be the same date all day, every day, all over the world.
Yes, this would mean that some places would be dark at noon, but once people become familiarized, it would make little difference. Everyday activities – work, sleep, recreation – would take place as they always have; only the numbers on the clock would be different. If I get up for work at the same time every day, why do I care whether that time is called 7:00 or 1:00 or a.m. or p.m.? As noted above, all air traffic operations already do this.
Anyone engaged in international business would know exactly what time – and what day – it is with any client or supplier. No more “my time or your time”? China already has implemented a system whereby the same time is in effect across its wide area, even though its eastern and western borders should be four or five hours apart. Local businesses and individuals would simply adjust their schedules as they wish, starting an hour earlier in the summer or an hour later in the winter without having to undertake a wholesale time change for all. This would also eliminate any need for that pesky Daylight Saving Time.
The main drawback is the effort that would be required to get everybody on board. Americans are notoriously reluctant to adopt anything new, even if it is more sensible, and especially if everyone else is doing it (metric system, anyone?).
On the other side of the world we would find political hostilities an impediment to any action on universal time. Could India and Pakistan agree to be on the same time? Even now, India is on the half-hour while Pakistan in on the hour. Two nations with such a history of petty displays of opposition may or may not enter gently into the same time designation.
There is hope, though. Last year just such a change occurred when North Korea adjusted its national time half an hour back to be the same as South Korea.
Perhaps this can work, after all.