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To Every Times, There Is A Purpose


© St. Petersburg Times

Etched invisibly across the planet's surface, the boundaries of the world's time zones stretch from pole to pole like the seams on a beach ball. But where did they come from? And how did they get so all-powerful?

We start our brief history in 1552 during the first circumnavigation of the globe. When the starving survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's westward expedition struggled into what we now call the Cape Verde Islands, they discovered that the date given by the locals -- Thursday, July 10 -- was one day later than that recorded in the captain's log. He noted that the sailors "were much amazed, for to us it was Wednesday, and we knew not how we had fallen into error."

Of course, had there been time zones, Magellan's crew members could have corrected their calendar as they sailed over the (then non-existent) International Date Line.

What with the extremely small numbers of that era's circumnavigators, the lack of a time zone system was hardly a matter for public concern. Only with the onset of the Industrial Revolution -- and the dramatic growth of railroads, which had to forecast arrivals and departures -- did the need for time zones become apparent. (As late as 1839, however, one English railway company refused to make public its new, single-time-zone timetables, complaining that such action "would tend to make punctuality a sort of obligation.")

But by the 1850s, much of Britain had adopted a single time standard: Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT.

As railroads continued their expansion, nowhere were the time zone problems associated with travel more severe than in America. The first rail passengers from Maine to California were required to make more than 20 time zone changes en route, according to the time standard set by each local railroad company's timetable. For instance, in Pittsburgh station, six giant clocks confronted the passenger; each clock stated a different local time, as set by the various railroad companies.

By 1880, trains ran according to 38 different time standards in Wisconsin alone.

Reflecting on the chaos in 1883, Harpers Magazine lamented that "any traveler trying to wend his way across (America) was doomed to bewildering confusion. His watch was to him but a delusion; clocks in stations ... defiant of harmony both with one another and with the surrounding time, and all wildly at variance with his watch."

The traveler's salvation was to come from an unlikely source. In 1870, Professor Charles Dowd, a New York school principal, published an idea that became the origin of the time system we use today. He proposed to divide the bulk of the United States into four regions -- time zones -- each spanning 15 degrees of longitude. Each zone would adhere to a uniform time differing by one hour from that of its neighbors.

Though widely applauded, it was still 13 years before Dowd's plan finally became operational along the railroads of the United States and Canada. And in the interim, the plan was revised to base the four time zones on the longitudes five, six, seven and eight hours "behind" that of Greenwich, England. Travel by land and sea exploded in the 19th century. Coupled with the introduction of international telegraphy, the need for a global system of standardized time became increasingly evident.

In 1884, the first International Conference for the Purpose of Fixing a Prime Meridian and a Universal Day convened in Washington. At the time, many "zero" lines of longitude were in active use, including those of Paris, Washington and even the Canary Isles.

After long debate, the conference chose Greenwich as the world's "prime meridian." Though not specifically discussed, a consequence of this decision was the subsequent adoption, country by country, of a worldwide system of time zones based on Dowd's idea.

Thus the midpoints of the world's hourly time zones were conveniently defined at intervals of 15 degrees of longitude east and west of Greenwich.

At the time of the conference, the United States, Canada and Britain were already observing the new system. And by the turn of the century, a score more countries had conformed to one of the world's new, hour-wide standard time zones.

By the 1970s, the only places not observing standard time were the interior of Greenland (with a resident population of zero, it hardly matters), the polar ice caps (where all time zones converge meaninglessly) and inland Saudi Arabia (where clocks are sometimes still set to midnight at sunset, in accordance with Koranic law).

Not all the variations occur in sparsely populated or non-Western locales:

In addition to Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time, America also uses Alaska (formerly Yukon) Time, Hawaii-Aleutian Time and Bering Time (GMT minus nine, 10 and 11 hours).

Similarly, Canada employs Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time, but also Newfoundland Time (GMT minus 3 hours) and Atlantic time (GMT minus four hours), which quaintly used to be known as Inter-Colonial Time.

Since time zones march away either side of Greenwich to plus and minus 12 hours in relation to GMT, there are actually 25, not 24, standard zones. Additionally, some countries have adopted times midway between these standards. Thus the time in India is 51/2 hours later and in Newfoundland 31/2 hours earlier than GMT.

Once having broken with the hourly principle of Dowd's original scheme, further confusion was bound to follow:

In 1946, New Zealand's tiny Chatham Islands pushed themselves a further 45 minutes adrift of Greenwich, achieving a heady advantage of no less than 123/4 hours.

A world away but equally idiosyncratic, in 1986, Himalayan Nepal implemented a time zone 53/4 hours ahead of GMT, no doubt pleasing to the pedants who recognize this as precisely the time difference between the longitudes of Greenwich and Katmandu but confusing for anyone who actually has to go there.

Perhaps the small mercy is that Nepal has not complicated things further by adopting daylight saving time. The purpose of advancing clocks by one hour each summer (pushing us all one time zone to the east) is simple: to afford more useful daylight leisure time in the evenings and to save on electrical lighting costs in the bargain.

Proposed half-jokingly by Ben Franklin in 1784, daylight saving time was first advocated seriously in 1907 by an urbane English builder, William Willet. When critics asked why he couldn't just get up an hour earlier in the summer, Willet's gentlemanly reply was simply, "What?"

His efforts led ultimately to the introduction in 1916 of British Summer Time and of daylight saving time in America in 1918.

After several revisions, American federal law now defines daylight saving time as effective from 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of April to 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October. States can choose whether to observe daylight saving time: At present, only Arizona, Hawaii, eastern Indiana and a few U.S. overseas territories decline. Interestingly, in a bout of continental absent-mindedness in 1930, the Soviet Union neglected to return to wintertime, having observed six months of daylight saving time. The effect was to push the entire country one time zone to the east. The problem wasn't corrected until 1991.

And after the Communist revolution in China in 1949, the craze for centralized planning dictated that the entire country, which is wider than the United States, should observe a single time zone based on the longitude of Beijing. Thus, western provinces such as Xinjiang begin their working day at 9 a.m. Beijing time, which can be hours before the local dawn.

Let us return briefly to that 1884 Washington conference that established Greenwich as the world's prime meridian. There was one further and immediate effect: the creation of the 180th line of longitude, otherwise known as the International Date Line. Running down the unfashionable side of the planet, the date line created a time warp across which the calendar advances or retreats by 24 hours in the space of a few hapless inches of Pacific Ocean.

In order to avoid territories that straddle it, such as the Aleutian and Fijian islands, the date line includes a series of zigzags, known as salients.

Living near a time warp can be a disturbing experience. Take the case of the Marshall Islands, a remote Pacific atoll to the west of the International Date Line. The largest island, Kwajalein, is a U.S. Army base with virtually no native inhabitants. At the height of its Cold War activity, Kwajalein adopted the same "day" as the continental United States, thereby propelling the island to the east of the Date Line and retarding it by 24 hours in relation to its neighboring islands.

But in 1993, the regional government reclaimed its prodigal son. The impact on the unfortunate Kwajaleinians was to erase the 21st of August from their calendars -- a Saturday. Bemused residents marked the event with a 2-mile, three-day "Run Around the Clock," starting just before midnight on Friday and ending a few minutes later on Sunday morning.

Sadly, we must conclude that our increasing ability to measure time has done nothing for our ability to control it. Created to ease travelers' schedules, instead time zones now dictate them. And their influence doesn't end there.

As the world shrinks and business empires expand, it's no longer enough to know at what hour the office closes, the time of the evening news, or that of the local sunrise. Today, Wall Street must know when Hong Kong closes, Olympic events must coincide with Asian and U.S. TV schedules and trans-Atlantic jumbos must take off with the dusk to touch down with the dawn.

Trapped in a cage of longitudes, we are slaves to a system of time barely a century old.

Long before then, Hamlet lamented, "The time is out of joint: Oh, cursed spite." And today, we've got the jet lag to prove it. Mike Chadwick is a freelance writer who lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Originally published December 28, 1997

To anyone who's ever flown into the sunrise or toward the sunset, struggled with an international phone call or simply tried to watch Wimbledon live, the mixed blessings of time zones will be all too apparent.

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