In the world of physics, there are only two sorts of time, the relativistic sort that makes up one part of the fourth dimension, as described by Einstein, and the arow of time that moves in the direction of entropy. In the world of technology, commerce, health, culture and politics there are multiple times – and, it seems, often a complete lack of logic to underpin them. While anyone who has had to catch a plane, or make an international phone call, knows how tricksy time zones can be – and for all that they just seem part of the fabric of global living – next year marks what is only their 140th anniversary. The idea of time zones is young. It is also in flux.
“The whole issue of time zones is simple in essence but a complex problem in reality,” as Emily Akkermans puts it. She is the fantastically-titled Curator of Time at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London (“I haven’t managed to bend time to my will yet,” she jokes). “We meddle with time zones around the world and make changes all the time. Whether those reasons are good ones depends on what side of the fence you’re sitting.”
Greenwich is where, for reasons of its history in pioneering navigation at sea, there is a literal line in the ground that, since 1884, has demarcated point zero for global time zones. This remains a fact even if improved measurements of our planetary globe afforded by satellites has meant that, since the mid-1980s, the line has actually moved about 100m eastwards.
Indeed, arguably it was the advance of technology – steam and electricity – that first promulgated the notion of rationalising time zones in the first place. If, for most of human history, time was a local affair – roughly understood by villagers who rarely strayed far from home ground, and not least of all because for most of human history most people did not have time-keeping devices. The coming of international sea trade in the Middle Ages and the later emergence of the telegraph and railways in the post- Industrial Revolution era changed all that.
Since this magazine is about wristwatches and timekeeping, broadly speaking, none of you, dear readers, will be surprised by a connection between timekeeping and longitude. Some of you will even recall that a 15 degree shift in any direction corresponds to a one-hour difference in local time. This idea first took hold for the editors (across many years) in the physicist and watchmaker Ludwig Oeschlin’s observation that you can watch the earth turn on its axis by looking at the movement of the hands on your dial. If you have a 24-hour dial, as Patek Philippe demonstrates with Ref. 5224R, you have all 24 time zones – although as you will see this is a bit more involved. This number is a convenient one based on there being 24 hours in the day, and 360 degrees in a sphere – so there are 360 longitudes.
And so we come to the matter of longitude, which is actually not what this story is about. It is worth bearing in mind that knowing one’s precise location at sea was what the longitude game was all about, and that an English carpenter and clockmaker named John Harrison played pivotal role here. Countless accidents at sea occurred because sailors could not derive their precise location, and thus the location of hazards. The emergence of the marine chronometer was one of the things that changed all that. The wireless telegraph (with the advent of radio) helped with this, and timekeepers on land also benefitted, as demonstrated by the iron horses of the railway. You might think the story remains in the past, what with satellites and GPS, but it continues to inform the crux of this tale – time as defined by national, political and economic interests – Ed.
Universally Uncoordinated Time
Given that you only have to travel east or west, say, a couple of hundred miles for solar time to have changed, in order to regulate the running of the trains either a national time zone – for a smaller territory – or system of regional times zones – for a larger territory – was required. But this soon got very clunky – in 1870 the US had 75 different railway times coast to coast, and these may have been at odds with the local time passengers had always known. Small wonder that it was a railway engineer, by the name of Sandford Fleming, who first proposed a global system of time zones, linked to the Greenwich Meridian – or Greenwich Mean Time, GMT. That is the system we still use today, and is why one 15 degree segment of the globe represents one hour.
Well, kind of. That clunkiness has not exactly gone away. Logic might dictate that there be 24 one-hour time zones – picture the Earth as an orange made up of time zone segments – but, in fact, there are 38. And that is only the start of the confusion. Russia, for example, is so vast it has 11 time zones, but sometimes only adheres to nine. Conversely, the similarly vast China spans five time zones but has only one. Some countries dip in and out of zones – in 2019 Morocco put its clock back for just a month during Ramadan. NASA and the European Space Agency are even talking now of creating a time zone for the moon. That is intriguing because time on the moon actually moves faster – around 56 micro-seconds a day faster – than that on Earth, enough to mess up your navigation systems. This is because of our old friend relativity, which is another story.
And then there is daylight savings time – not all countries embrace this yearning for more evening light, and of those that do, not all embrace it at the same time. Or there is the fact that time zones do not even operate in whole hours. India and its neighbour Nepal, for example, are just 15 minutes apart. There are other perplexing disparities too: Eucla in southern Australia is eight hours and 45 minutes ahead of UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time – technically the successor to GMT – though the Northern Territory is nine-and-a-half hours ahead.
Less Is More?
Would it be better to cut back on the number of time zones? That, it has been argued, would at least bring economic benefits – Indonesia, for example, has discussed cutting back its zones from three to two, because it figures it will be better for business. But why just cut them back? Why not just do away with all time zones, and have one global time?
That is the contention of Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at The John Hopkins University, Baltimore, together with colleague Richard Henry, professor of astronomy. They argue that this would make communications, finance, logistics and trade smoother – that is why, for instance, American Samoa jumped across the international dateline in 2011, thus officially never seeing December 30th of that year, so it could be better in synch with its biggest trading partners, Australia and New Zealand.
Furthermore, they say that, like the railways before, now, thanks to the internet, satellites and jet aircraft, the speed of global communications demands a single zone. Some frequent travellers already think this way: since the early 1970s airline pilots have used Universal Time wherever they are in flight.
“Time zones are a function of distance, of moving slowly between one point and another,” explains Hanke. “But we argue that with the rapid movement of people and communications, local time zones became obsolete. We once had hundreds of thousands of time zones around the world, and then we had 38. Our proposal is simply to go from 38 to one, and for the same logical reason. This is a small world.”
Playing with Time
Certainly time zones have long been politicised, at local, national and geo-political levels. “In GMT noon is approximately 12 o’clock, and that’s when the sun is at its highest in the sky and that’s an idea we’ve grown used to [wherever we are]. You don’t want noon o’clock straying too far from the noon sun,” suggests Akkermans. “In a global arrangement, who gets to ‘own’ noon at midday? There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s easy to see how the application would not be easy [politically].“
It should be remembered that states play with time all the time. When, in 2007, Venezuela decided to put its clocks back 30 mins from standardised time – making it one of a handful of nations out of synch, among them Iran and Afghanistan – it was maybe making some kind of statement about its national self-determination. Calls for the EU to ditch its three time zones and embrace just one are, arguably, about underscoring the ideology of the super-state as much as they are to make trade easier. Spain, far out west on the European continent and in line with GMT, is still stuck in the ‘wrong’ time zone – in line with that of Poland and Hungary, way out in far eastern Europe – because its former dictator General Franco imposed that as an indicator of its fealty to Nazi Germany. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2011 it imposed a Russian time zone on the occupied territory. And so on…
That is the macro level. But the impact of toying with time zones is very much felt at the micro level. That is why a UK campaign to drop Daylight Savings Time and so put the country in the same time zone as the rest of the European continent, just 34 kms away at its nearest point, was rebuffed by the Scottish Parliament. It would mean that, in the north of the UK, the mornings would not be light until 10am during the winter.
As Akkermans puts it, “we tend to think about time zones as being about east and west, but they can also have influence north to south. And then, because of the impact on daylight, that’s when time zones become really important.”
It is human biology that we wake or sleep according to our circadian rhythms, which in turn are managed by our exposure to daylight; that is, the rising and setting of the sun. The more one is forced to live by a less localised time zone, it is argued, the bigger the impact on the quality of our sleep – which has a knock-on effect for health, education, productivity and, all told, national well-being. That is also leading to a demand in some parts of the world that more time zones be introduced.
The example of India makes clear why that might be desirable. Stretching 2,933 kms east to west, the sun rises in the east almost two hours earlier than in the west, and yet the country nonetheless has one Indian Standard Time. With so many hundreds of millions of people in the west of India starting their day in darkness, there is not just a huge pull on electricity consumption. It means that schoolchildren who experience lighter evenings invariably have a longer waking day. And that means they get less sleep – and studies suggest these children are less likely to complete primary and middle school. Proposals to split India into two time zones have so far been rejected by government – because it would cause too much confusion for the railway system.
Hanke argues that a single time zone would not affect local time at all. “We’d still live by our natural rhythms – a single time zone wouldn’t do away with the circadian clock we’re all hard-wired with,” says Hanke – a universal time might even spark renewed respect for our biological clocks. “It just means that everyone’s watch would show the same position on the dial.”
One Standard for All
Such is our attachment to ordering our lives, our habits and our activities by local time that it sounds positively weird that, under the single global time proposal, the working day on the east coast of the United States, for example, would start at 1400 hours and end around 2200 hours; in Australia the day would begin at 0100 hours. But, Hanke says, the working day would still be conducted throughout the local period of daylight – its hours just would not be called the same.
The single global time zone is, he says, really little more than a return to the way local matters were handled before the railways, with the addition of a world clock ensuring that international affairs continue unheeded: there would be working time and there would be universal time. This is pretty much what already happens in China, Hanke suggests. Although, officially, its single national time zone means some institutions and businesses, and so people, have to operate at odd hours, unofficially many Chinese set their daily schedules by something approximating solar time and overlook the state-sanctioned time until it is needed.
“Just because there’s a single global unified time zone doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for complete diversity at the local level,” argues Hanke. “People will still get up when the sun comes up and still go to bed at night. [But] there’s just no point tinkering with the messy current time zone arrangements any more. We should just go for it and make the change now.”
Clock time may be arbitrary – it is whatever we in our circle agree it is – and yet it has never seemed more relative. Will the change Hanke proposes come? Will, most importantly of all, we finally be free from the ritual of having to wind our watches back or forth whenever we touch down at some faraway airport? Or will we need watches with two time displays – universal and solar – more than ever?
“[In the end] it’s usage that’s going to call the tune on this issue,” Hanke says. “Things are ordered spontaneously, by human actions, because they’re desirable or useful. There was no centralised design for language, money or markets either. They came about because they make sense. And the same is true of universal time.”
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