Growing up in the Belgian town of Bruges, I remember walking past a copper-plate-dotted line across the central market square. High up on a rooftop corner, a copper ball would overlook the square. Come noon, the shadow of the copper ball would hit the dotted line, signalling merchants it was time to wrap up. This large sundial was put up in 1837, but though a pretty sight, it soon became obsolete.
The Universal Time Zone
Just three years after the creation of that sundial, the first trains started to arrive in the city. A sundial may be enough to know what time you’re supposed to pack up your market stall, it causes trouble when fast transport connects cities on different latitudes. Bruges and the capital city of Brussels are just a degree apart, but that already amounts to four minutes difference. So in 1892 Belgium decreed all cities were to stick to the Universal Time Zone. They followed Britain’s lead, which had officially adopted “railway time” in 1880, and the British colony of New Zealand, which lead the way by standardising time in 1868.
The USA was also an early adapter, though the size of the country caused it to play around with different zones for a while. In 1883 the country implemented the time zones we now know: Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Eastern Canada, which was supposed to adopt the Intercolonial Time Zone, decided to take Eastern Time instead, to facilitate traffic to and from Maine, U.S. All the major cities played along, except for Detroit, which went from local time to CST, then local mean time, then finally settled on EST in 1916.
By 1929, most countries had decided on a time zone which could be measured based on Greenwich Mean Time. Nepal was the last to do so, when it took GMT+5:45 as its time zone in 1986. By doing that, it’s the only country in the world to use a quarter deviation of GMT. Some countries, like Australia, use half hour deviations to let different parts of the country stay close to solar time. Other countries, like India (+5:30), Iran (+3:30), and notably China (+8:00), chose a single time zone for the entire country. Because China centred its time zone around Beijing solar noon, people in the far east of the country are expected to sleep through four hours of daylight in the summer, and people in the far western Tibetan region don’t see the sun till 10am in summertime. The western province of Xinjiang has therefore adopted an unofficial time zone of GMT+6:00.
Do we need that?
Some have called to get rid of these confusing time zones, and just to take GMT as the world’s time. So while 12pm might mean lunchtime in England, it would be the start of the day in New York, and the end of the day in China. Living in Hong Kong, that would mean starting the day at around 12am, and grabbing lunch around 5am. Want to skype someone? No need to say “I’m free between 7pm and 9pm my time, so I guess that’s… wait, are you ahead or behind on us?” Wouldn’t that make things easier?
Well… no. Because people would still be working and sleeping during what their country considered working and sleeping time. So now, instead of doing a quick google to see what time it is in another country, you’d have to consider whether or not 7pm falls under work hours in that country. It’s impolite to call a stranger after 10pm, but what if the old 10pm is now more like 4pm for you, and 3am for the stranger you’re calling? Erhm…
Briefly, midnight and noon are more than points on a clock. They’re concepts ingrained in our everyday life. And making them seemingly random again will not at all simplify things.
Cursed Daylight Saving Time
Maybe let’s start by dropping Daylight Saving Time. There’s a lot of confusion as to why countries around the world still change the clocks in autumn and spring. It’s said to decrease energy consumption, which may have been true when incandescent lighting was the main use of electricity, but that is not so anymore. These days, energy consumption is not highest in the evening anymore, but varies according to the weather. Some say DST is still useful for afterwork activities, but it may do more damage than good. Check out this summary from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight to learn more.