A train passing through a narrow street in Hanoi
Before the late 19th century, time was expressed in local solar time worldwide. As trains became a faster and more common way to transport people over long distances this became confusing. Theoretically, any distance you moved east or west would result in a person needing to adjust his watch before, but now you had these trains with scheduled stops in all these different local times.
Our current system
Sandfor Fleming, a Canadian railway engineer first proposed the basis for our current time zone system in his “Papers on Time-reckoning and the selection of a prime meridian to be common to all nations” in the Transactions of the Canadian Institute, Toronto in 1879. The urgency for a solution is made clear on page 13 with the example:
“Suppose we take the case of a person travelling from London to India. He starts with Greenwich time, but he scarcely leaves the shores of England, when he finds his watch no longer right. Paris time is used for the journey, until that of Rome becomes the standard. At Brindisi is another exchange. Up the Mediterranean, ships’ time is used. At Alexandria, Egyptian time is the standard. At Suez, ships’ time is resumed, and continues, with daily changes, until India is reached. Arriving at Bombay, the traveller will find two standards employed, local time and railway time, the latter being that of Madras.” -page 13-
The paper highlights much more examples, but the point is clear. Local times were a mess back then.
“From its very nature, there are as many different local days as there are points differing in longitude (..).” -page 19-
Sir Fleming then talks about the fundamentals of the Reckoning of Time. He talks about the different kinds of days and the history of dividing those days. About how any division of a day has to be arbitrary since they are not part of what he calls “The great natural divisions” and all other divisions are “arbitrary, conventional and artificial”. When i wrote my previous article about a different scheme i hadn’t read these papers yet. It is interesting to see that he, although he disagrees on the practicality of introducing a system like this, has a similar view about dividing days using the decimal system:
“When the decimal system was adopted by the French, it was proposed to divide the day into ten and a hundred parts; a scheme which would probably be the best at this age of the world, had the whole system of horology [time telling]to be established de novo [from the beginning].” -page 26- (Additions by me in [square brackets])
Papers on Time-reckoning and the selection of a prime meridian to be common to all nations - 1879, page 27, figure 1
Directly after the quote above, he goes into establishing a “mean solar day” before introducing the basis for time zones, beautifully accompanied by this illustration. You will notice a globe with a chronometer in the middle and letters around it representing subdivisions. The choice for letters is explained as: “The employment of the letters of the alphabet for the twenty-four divisions would in most civilized countries distinguish them from local hours (..).” -page 28-. Notably the letter “J” is omitted. This could be because the letter “J” and “I” are so similar, but this could also be because even though the letter “J” was used for a relatively long time, it wasn’t considered a separate letter. I can’t easily find a trust-able source or an exact point in time though when it did became so, and it’s not that important to this article. Sir Fleming explains his proposed system and the above illustration as follows:
“It is proposed that, in relation to the whole globe, the dial plate of the central chronometer shall be a fixture, as in Fig. 1; that each of the twenty-four divisions into which the unit of time is divided, shall be assumed to correspond with certain known meridians of longitude, and that the machinery of the instrument shall be arranged and regulated so that the index or hour hand shall point in succession to each of the twenty-four divisions as it became noon at the corresponding meridian. In fact, the hour hand shall revolve from east to west with precisely the same speed as the earth on its axis, and shall therefore point directly and constantly towards the sun, while the earth moves round from west to east.” -page 27–28-
What an elegant solution to such an ugly problem, right? An interesting detail follows only a few lines after that. With our current technology this would’ve been an easy global effort, but not so much in that time. He proposes a solution on how to synchronize and coordinate this globally:
“Indeed, the proposed system, if carried into force, would result in establishing many keepers of standard time, perhaps in every country, the electric telegraph affording the means of securing perfect synchronism all over the world.” page 28-
His proposal is considerably different than our current time system, but it lays the basis for the realization that dividing the world in 24 parts, as the days already were, would result in a uniform way worldwide to tell time.
In his letter “Time Reckoning for the twentieth century”_ in _“the annual report of the board of regents of the Smithsonian institution (..) for the year ending Jun 30, 1886“ Sanford reflects on the scientific conference in the autumn of 1884 in Washington and the resulting unanimous adoption of the seven resolutions of time worldwide. In this letter he explicitly talks about divisions in degrees:
“A spectator standing at the north pole would have neither east nor west; in whatever direction he might east his eyes he would look towards the south; (..) If from zero the horizon be divided into a series of ares of 15° each the whole circle around will consist of twenty-four divisions.” -page 349-
This conference and Sanford’s reaction were shortly after the United States and Canada adopted 5 hour zones. In the night of November 18, 1883, the hands of the clocks of some fifty million people were for the most part moved forwards or backwards in order to indicate the time of one of these five zones.
“Throughout the United States and Canada we have outgrown the notion of isolating each locality by compelling it to observe a separate time notation. The Continent is divided into zones, each zone having the same time throughout its extent, based on a meridian which is a multiple of fifteen degrees from the Prime Meridian. Consequently the time of each zone varies exactly one hour from that of the adjoining zones.” -page 353-
Even though he calls the Washington conference “(..) an epoch in the annals of the world not less important than those of the reforms of Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII.” -page 360- He is not quite satisfied with the result:
“The scheme of hour meridians can only be regarded as a provisional arrangement. It greatly lessens the difficulties experienced, but it does not wholly remove them.” -page 354- “The final step may appear to involve serious changes in much which concerns every individual, but it is not to be supposed that it will in any way interfere with the periods for labor, sleep, meals, or any ordinary usage. The one change will be in the numbers of the hours. (…) the simple expedient of numbering the hours so that everywhere they will correspond with Cosmic Time will result in securing the general uniformity to be desired. (…) the same hours, minutes and seconds will universally be observed at the same instant. In cases when business men separated by long distances make contracts by telegraph, the engagements will be free from all ambiguity as to time. Both parties will be bound absolutely by the same notation.” -page 357-
If we look at his first paper regarding “time reckoning” I mentioned above, we can see that his proposal was not actually about time zones each with their local time. Remember the letters and why they were letters? In the appendix he explains with some beautiful examples:
“Illustrating simultaneous Time at each of the twenty-four lettered meridians proposed as Local Standards; Local Time differing one hour in each case; Cosmopolitan Time remaining constant.” -page 44–51-
Besides the local time that represents our current time zoned time, we can see that “Cosmopolitan time” is the same on every clock! The local time can is still visible on the outer circle, together with a shading depending on the time of the day. Very elegant, right? As the first part of his proposal was excepted, he expected this system to make it into everyday life very soon after that:
“In about a dozen years we pass into another century. [1900’s] (..) We have therefore good grounds for the belief that, by the dawn of the coming century, the civilized nations may enjoy a system of notation limited to no locality; (..).” -page 360-
Sadly it did not make it into everyday life. A hundred and thirty-one years later we have even more than 24 time zones as there are now currently 38 in use when we count the ones offset by 15 and 30 minutes.
“It will thus be seen that while the contemplated reform will interfere as little as possible with existing customs, it will result in giving to the human family around the globe concurrent dates and in making every division of time uniform the world over.” -page 357-
How to fix our time zones
If you read my previous article where i introduced Decimal Metric Time in Ticks you will know that i propose to divide days into a 1000 ticks. You should definitely read it if you haven’t, as my next point will make more sense.
As a result of the division in a 1000 parts and removing the factor of 24, our current time zones will be broken. That’s not a problem, and in fact exactly what I envision. Why use time zones instead of one global time when we are as global of a civilization as we are now? As we’ve seen above this is not a novel idea at all, it is the Utopian view of Sandfor Fleming and many after him to only use global time. While he chose the term “Cosmopolitan Time”, he also coined other terms like “common”, “universal” “”non-local”, “uniform”, “aboslute”, “all-world” and “terrestrial” on page 28.
Using one universal time does take some getting used to. Fleming worded this better than i can:
“Suppose G to be the noon letter at a particular place, how easy it would be for a resident to comprehend that it was always noon when the hour hands of the clock pointed to G; (…). Persons living in that locality would soon become familiar with the relation which the several letters had to the time of day. Again, if we pass to a locality where another letter O becomes the meridian or noon letter, there could be no misunderstanding the meaning of the expression.” -page 32-
If we combine this concept of getting used to letters or numbers representing a specific time of the day locally, while representing a specific time globally with the DMTT standard I proposed, we get a perfect uniform global standard. Lets take the global time 5,25 hT for example. While in some places on earth that will be early in the morning, on others it will be late in the evening but it’s still referenced everywhere as 5,25 hT. Can you imagine travelling to Japan and not having the stress to convert your departure time between time zones? Your flight will not seem to take a quarter of a day or three quarters of a day when it takes exactly half a day. And have you ever needed to plan an international phone call?
“The main obstacles to be overcome are the restraints which tradition imposes and the usages which our ancestors have transmitted to us.” -page 360-
Earth Time: Global DMTT
Since the first introduction of time zones a lot of things have happened. Our species had it’s first person in space and on the moon, and is soon to have stepped foot on a completely different planet. “The great natural divisions are three in number: the year, the lunar month and the day” -page 20- as Fleming mentioned. But it is important to note that those divisions are not universal for different extraterrestrial bodies. A day on Mars is more than a percent longer than that of earth’s and a year is 88% longer for example.
I propose to call this global time system “Earth Time”. With this we have future-proofed ourselves for civilizations on other planets. We can use this system for all our determining of time, in every country on earth and on any extraterrestrial body in the inverse. If we ever need to have a time system that coincides with the natural divisions of another planet we can always use it side by side or find a better way.
If you enjoyed my dive into time zones, especially the quotes included in this article you should definitely read the original letters. There is so much more elegant insight into time than i could write about here, and the thought processes are remarkable.
What do you think? Leave a comment!