In what is claimed to be a blow against one of the last remnants of Japanese Imperialism, North Korea will move to a new time zone on 15 August, the 70th Anniversary of the surrender of Japanese forces on the Peninsula at the end of World War Two. Clocks will move back by half an hour next Saturday, taking the hermit state half an hour behind Seoul and Tokyo (GMT +9) and half an hour ahead of Beijing (GMT +8).
With a characteristic rhetorical flourish, the official state news agency said that, “The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time while mercilessly trampling down its land”. The rhetoric should not surprise us. Time has often been an intensely political subject, as we shall see.
In this case, however, there was no pre-existing standard Korean time zone for the Japanese to replace. For most of history, time everywhere was natural time. Noon was whenever the Sun reached its zenith.
As economies and social organisation grew more complex, time keeping began to matter more. Places of worship, at least in the lands of the Abrahamic Faiths, usually supplied the common time of a particular locality. Islamic prayer’s intimate relationship with the rise and fall of the Sun is obvious. In Catholic countries, the Angelus is rung at 6, 12 and 6. In the days before the radio news gave accurate time every hour, the 3-3-3-9 pattern woke workers up in the morning, called them home from the fields firstly for lunch and then finally for the evening’s leisure. That its chimes had more than purely religious import is demonstrated by the name of the 6 p.m. Angelus in Germany: the Feierabendglocke, or “evening rest bell”.
After the Reformation, timekeeping was no less important in Protestant territory, and while the Angelus may have ceased to be rung, church bells still played a vital role in helping people organise their days.
In the religiously complex lands of the Balkans, the timekeeping of places of worship was especially complex. Bosnia’s greatest writer, Ivo Andrić, made the sounding of bells a commentary on his homeland’s religious and ethnic divisions:
Whoever spends a night in Sarajevo awake in his bed, can hear the voices of the Sarajevo night. The Catholic cathedral chimes heavily and assuredly: two in the morning. More than a minute passes (75 seconds to be exact, I counted) and only then does the clock from the Orthodox church strike with a somewhat weaker but penetrating sound, chiming out its two in the morning. A little later, the clock tower at the Bey’s Mosque sounds, with a muffled, distant, voice, and it strikes eleven o’clock, eleven ghostly Turkish hours, according to the calculations of remote, alien ends of the earth! The Jews do not have their own bell to chime, but God alone knows what time it is for them, according to both Sephardic and Ashkenazy reckoning.
There was for much of history no means for time to be standardised between one locality and another and no reason for it to be so. Whoever was responsible for keeping a given clock wound and working would simply check it daily against a sundial. Clocks lost quite a bit of time every day anyway. The pace of life meant a few minutes’ inaccuracy made little difference.
The need for more accurate timekeeping came from a surprising direction – navigation on the high seas. While sailors could determine their latitude accurately on any night where they could see stars using a sextant, it was virtually impossible for them to determine their longitude. Uncertainty of position led to unnumbered thousands of lives being lost as ships found themselves further east or west than they expected and wrecked on rocks.
After many fruitless avenues of experiment, the only viable solution proved to be to develop watches several orders of magnitude more accurate than what had existed before. The Earth’s circumference is divided into 360 degrees of longitude; the Earth takes 24 hours to rotate under the sun. So 15 degrees of longitude is equivalent to one hour of solar time. A watch accurate to twenty seconds per day, for example, would allow longitude to be calculated to 5 minutes of longitude or around four miles in the middle latitudes – life-saving accuracy.
The engineering challenges proved considerably more difficult than the theory, but were eventually cracked in the mid 18th Century by an English clockmaker named John Harrison, as brilliantly chronicled in Dava Sobel’s prize winning book, Longitude.
As the price of accurate watches fell dramatically in the early 19th Century, so local time began to become ‘denaturised’, or detached from solar time, particularly in the contemporary hi-tech hothouse of England. That’s because the time of solar noon doesn’t just vary from one place to another. Since the Babylonians, it has been known that it varies from one day to another in the same place, in a regular and predictable pattern. This is due to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun being not perfectly circular, and the Earth’s axis not being exactly perpendicular to its orbit. In other words, one solar day isn’t exactly the same length as another. But life is far simpler if we pretend that it is, and so true noon occurs at different times every day.
Belfast is almost exactly 6 degrees west of Greenwich, which means it’s 24 minutes earlier by solar time. We would expect solar noon to be at 12.24 p.m. The variation from one day to the next, however, means that solar noon can be as early 12.07 p.m. in early November and as late as 12.38 p.m. in mid-February. This variation is called the ‘equation of time’. The term ‘mean time’ is derived from the mean solar noon across the year being used as midday on every day.
Summer Time makes it more complicated than that, so for a long period in late July and early August noon in Belfast is at 1.30 p.m. We’ll come back to Summer Time later. Note that this variation is regardless of latitude or longitude. So, solar noon is always at exactly the same time in Tangier in Morocco, 2,100 km directly south, as it is in Belfast. And solar noon varies by the same amount from the mean at any point on Earth on the same day.
British stagecoach companies were at the forefront of this division of time and nature, running ever faster schedules on the turnpike roads being steadily being improved by the legendary road engineer John Loudon McAdam. Just before the railways came, they were managing average speeds of up to 10 miles per hour over hundreds of miles and were increasingly timetabled to the minute. Every stagecoach carried a set of conversion tables in an almanac, showing both the equation of time for the day and the local time for every serviced town in Great Britain. Norwich time was 5 minutes ahead of London; Oxford 5 minutes behind; and Exeter a full 14 minutes behind. Yet journeys were still slow enough that coachmen adjusted their watch by a minute or two when necessary at stops.
The real revolution was brought by the railways and the telegraph cables. As the first railway junctions were built, accurate and consistent timings between drivers and signalmen were necessary to avert disaster. The local time that was to become the national and later the world standard was that of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich – not quite London time, but 31 seconds ahead.
As early as 1840, the Great Western Railway adopted Greenwich Mean Time across its network. The two northern powerhouses of Manchester and Liverpool followed suit in 1846, giving the new concept a significant boost. A few years later, the new technology of telegraphy allowed messages to be sent across the country almost instantaneously, and in 1852 the Royal Observatory, with timepieces accurate to fractions of a second per day now on the premises, began to transmit standard time signals on the wires.
By 1855, 98% of the country had moved to GMT. Holdouts remained, however, especially in the West Country. In Exeter, Deans of the Cathedral fought a successful rearguard action for many years, being reluctant to abandon the times that God ordained in nature for prayer in favour of those determined by the bureaucrats of the railway companies. Oxford, a bastion of tradition, was another late adopter. It wasn’t until 1880 that GMT became the legal standard time across the whole of Great Britain.
Similar pressures forced the adoption of standard time wherever in the world the railway ran. In the United States, a fatal train crash in 1853 saw a standard railway time adopted for New England. Italy’s birth as a nation in 1866 saw Rome time adopted as standard across the country (around 50 minutes ahead of GMT), Germany’s creation a few years later saw Berlin Time adopted (around 54 minutes ahead), while France naturally adopted Paris Time (9 minutes 21 seconds ahead).
In India, at least five major cities initially saw their local time adopted over large regions as different railway networks spread over the vast country only for pandemonium to ensue when the networks began to link up in the 1860s. Being located roughly halfway across the subcontinent, Madras time, 5 hours 21 minutes ahead of GMT, was adopted as standard in 1870, but the hefty metropolises of Bombay and Calcutta held on to their own civic time until after independence, Calcutta only adopting Indian Standard Time in 1948 and Bombay holding out until 1955.
By that time, India’s standard time had long since moved to exactly 5½ hours ahead of GMT. India wasn’t the country experiencing confusion as the railways spread. In Europe, confusing time changes reigned at every national border as the era of international rail travel arrived.
In North America, the chaos dwarfed anything observed in Europe or Asia. Each of the many railway companies adopted its own railway time, usually based on mean time at company headquarters or a major terminus. Signalmen might have to keep an eye on as many as five clocks, varying by difficult offsets of seconds, at complex junctions. A train running from Detroit to Washington on Cleveland Time might have to negotiate a junction with a train running from Memphis to Boston on Atlanta Time. The expansion of the railways was characteristically chaotic American capitalism at both its best and its worst.
In that context, it is unsurprising that the first proposals for a Universal Time that varied locally by multiples of a whole hour were made by an American, Charles F Dowd, and a Canadian, Sanford Fleming.
As a result, President Chester A. Arthur called an International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC in 1884 to select “a meridian to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world”. Although the location and host was a sign of the growing political and scientific clout of the United States on the global stage, the city chosen to be the centre of the world’s time and mapping system would be the winner of a contest to be the unofficial caput mundi, capital of the world. In 1884 that was still a contest between London and Paris.
Delegations came not only from the major European powers, but also from Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Liberia and much of Latin America – the International Meridian Conference was one of the first truly global decision making fora. Once it was clear that Paris was out of the running, the French delegation argued that meridian chosen should be strictly neutral, but London got the nod.
British dominance of world shipping meant that most maritime charts were already referenced to Greenwich, and that swayed opinion in Northern Europe in particular.
London’s case was further strengthened by a decision made the previous year by the USA without reference to the rest of the world – again characteristically American. With time-related chaos on the ever-expanding railway networks worsening, agreement was reached on five standard time zones on the railroads, all of which being full hour offsets from Greenwich. These were the direct antecedents of the four familiar American Time Zones, the fifth, as today, covering Atlantic Canada, an hour ahead of New York. The zones were introduced on 18 November 1883, “The Day of Two Noons”, when clocks were reset in stations as the new standard time noon moved west across the continent. Adoption was quicker than in Britain a generation before, although Detroit held out with its own zone until the turn of the century.
Within ten years, most European countries and Japan aligned their clocks with Greenwich – Berlin and Rome, for example, moved to exactly one hour ahead of Greenwich in 1893. China adopted standard time zones in 1904, the same year the Japanese occupiers established GMT +9 as standard in Korea. India, as discussed above, moved from Madras time to GMT +5½ in 1906. A smarting France held out until 1911, and even then adopted the perversely named “Paris Mean Time delayed 9 minutes 21 seconds” rather than utter the ignominious term ‘Greenwich’. The Netherlands perversely adopted GMT in 1892 only to abandon it for Amsterdam Time, 19 minutes ahead of Greenwich, in 1911.
Apart from that strange Dutch exception, by the time the First World War broke out, only one highly developed country was still to adopt a simple offset from Greenwich Mean Time – Ireland. Nationalist sentiment and political heft around the turn of the 20th Century was strong enough to prevent the Anglicisation of something as natural as time – they may have stolen our language, persecuted our religion and killed us with famine, but they weren’t going to tell us when it was time to eat our dinner. So, most of Ireland followed the railway network in using Dublin Mean Time, set at Dunsink Observatory, 25 minutes and 21 seconds behind Greenwich. However, Belfast was big enough, and had enough of its own political sensitivities, that with the exception of the railways, nearly all clocks in East Ulster ran on Belfast time, 23 minutes and 29 seconds behind Greenwich.
Clocks in railway stations like Bangor showed both Belfast and Dublin time, which gave commuters into Belfast running late for a train 1 minute 52 seconds grace if they lingered too long over their breakfast.
The First World War brought an end to all that, and all of Ireland was standardised onto British Time on 1 October 1916. The reason for that was the introduction of Summer Time (I told you we’d get back to it) or, as it is more accurately known, Daylight Saving Time. In middle and high latitudes, much sunlight is ‘wasted’ in long summer mornings when people are still in bed. By changing the clocks by an hour in these months, sunrise and sunset are shifted to allow an extra hour of sunlit leisure after work has finished.
The idea was first proposed in 1895, by a New Zealand ectomologist named George Hudson, who liked the idea of an extra hour of daylight to collect insects after his shift-work job finished. The idea was raised fairly seriously in Parliament in Britain in the 1900s, but was first actually implemented in Germany and Austria-Hungary on 30 April 1916. The Central Powers had already endured two years of acute economic blockade by that stage, and with coal in short supply, the prospect of reducing electricity use in summer evenings was too valuable to pass up on.
Britain, and along with it Ireland, copied the innovation five months later, the different official rationale being that it would allow agricultural workers extra evening daylight to take in the harvest, with much of the regular workforce enlisted and fighting overseas. Belligerents as well as neutrals in Europe followed quick suit, and the USA adopted Daylight Saving Time after it entered the War in 1918.
After the War, it was abandoned in most countries, the main exceptions being Britain, Ireland, France and Canada. In the USA, its abandonment was said to be in the face of fervent support by Woodrow Wilson, a keen golfer who relished the idea of an idea of an extra hour on the Washington links on sultry summer evenings. It got a second wind with the Second World War, and then was adopted widely after the oil shock of 1973.
It is now universal in Europe and the Near East, almost universal in North America (the exceptions being Saskatchewan and Arizona), as well southern parts of Brazil and Australia. Yet, it has been abandoned by most places that have tried it, including almost all of Asia (Mongolia being the sole remaining user), much of Latin America and Northern and Southern Africa. Although the logic of Daylight Saving Time makes little sense in equatorial regions where the length of each day is almost identical across the year, it has even been tried – and abandoned – in Ecuador, a country named after the equator.
That logic, however, also explains why many countries use a time zone one hour to the east of their ‘natural’ one. France and the Benelux countries, for example, moved to their current time zone of GMT +1 during the wartime German occupation. These countries lie almost entirely to the west of 7 ½ degrees east, and should naturally be on GMT. After the Second World War ended, one might have expected a remnant of the despised Nazis would have quickly been dispensed with, but the extra hour of year-round evening daylight was too useful to be abandoned. Even in equatorial countries, an hour of daylight between 6 and 7 p.m. is often considered sufficiently useful to leave the hour between 6 and 7 a.m. in darkness.
In the UK, politicians from heavily Tory Southeastern England occasionally propose joining France on Central European Time, even in these Eurosceptic times. Claims of reduced traffic accidents in the evening rush hour, difficult to verify, are often cited as justification. After all Brittany and Galicia, as far into the Atlantic as Kerry or Galway, share a time zone with Berlin and Warsaw. Howls of protest inevitably ensue from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the winter sunrise time would be shifted towards 10 a.m. or even later, and children would spend much of the year going to school in the dark.
Perhaps the UK could consider moving to two time zones, with England moving to Central European Time and the Celtic nations remaining with the Republic (and Portugal) on Western European Time. Yet that might be a centrifugal force too many for a wobbly Union to bear. Indeed, countries much larger than the UK manage with just one time zone, although not always happily. India, as noted before, runs entirely on GMT +5½, a reasonable compromise between its commercial heart, Mumbai, which would naturally be on GMT +5, and its cultural capital, Kolkata, which would logically be on GMT +6. The compromise works badly in the seven far Northeastern states sandwiched between Bangladesh and Burma, already culturally and politically remote from the bulk of the country, which could sensibly be on GMT +7, and suffer unnaturally dark evenings and uselessly bright early mornings.
Although it had five time zones before the Communist victory in the Civil War in 1949, all of China has used GMT +8 since, perfect for Beijing and the country’s heavily populated East Coast, but making little sense in Tibet and Xinjiang, which suffer unhelpfully dark mornings as a result. Kashgar, the main city in China’s ethnically Turkic heartland and just shy of the border with Kyrgyzstan, informally uses GMT +6 in commerce. As thousands of Han Chinese immigrants have flocked to China’s booming Wild West on the new railways, however, Kashgar now effectively has two time zones – not geographical ones, but ethnic ones. Most Chinese in Kashgar use Beijing Time, while their Uyghur neighbours steadfastly keep time two hours earlier.
Even the mighty Chinese Communist Party has to yield to the Sun, however, and government offices there use compromise opening hours between official Beijing Time and informal Xinjiang Time.
Despite having three time zones and the added complexity of different parts of the country using or shunning Summer Time, Australia also has a rather charming example of an unofficial time zone in the almost lifeless Nullarbor Desert. A few hundred people in the tiny hamlets strung along the Perth to Adelaide highway, which exist only to service the roadhouses fuelling the trucks and feeding the people, use the quirky time offset of GMT +8 ¾, 45 minutes ahead of Perth and 45 minutes behind Adelaide, each more than 1,000 km away. In the middle of one of the world’s least habitable tracts, local solutions are often the best ones.
Australia also provides the world’s only example of a Summer Time offset that is not exactly one hour. The remote Lord Howe Islands are 600 km off into the Coral Sea towards New Zealand and home to 360 people servicing rigidly restricted numbers of Sydney hipsters on ecotourism holidays. They spend the winter 30 minutes ahead of Sydney but join it on GMT +11 during the Southern Hemisphere summer.
Time is not only intensely political but occasionally intensely religious. In Israel, shabbat runs from Friday to Saturday sunset, and much of the country grinds to a standstill, much to the chagrin of secular Israelis. Friday and Saturday evening public transport schedules are constantly adjusted throughout the year as a result.
Saudi Arabia was the world’s last country to move from solar time to denaturised time, officially moving to GMT +3 in 1962, but with many Saudis failing to follow suit in terms of the conduct of their own lives until well into the 1970s. That made sense in a country where much of life revolves around the five-times daily call to prayer, at times determined by the position of the Sun. The documentary Bitter Lake found old films of well-spoken English businessmen complaining about the impossibility of trying to arrange business meetings with Saudi partners who translated 3 p.m. into the 9th solar hour, a time which varied from day to day throughout the year. Eventually the demands of international commerce saw even Saudi Arabia fall into line with global norms and denaturised time is now universal. These days, the Prophet’s faithful are as likely to be called to prayer by the buzz of a smartphone app as the call of a muzzein anyway.
Perhaps there is no greater testament to our era, the first that is truly global, than the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population see the same minute hand on their clocks and same seconds ticking away on their computers, regardless of where they live. The workaholic Manhattan fund manager might wake up exactly – exactly – eight hours after the Mount Kenya banana grower: both of them have their mobile phone alarm set to 5 a.m., and the global GSM network keeps both identically accurate. Only the hour shifts with the Sun.
Exceptions are concentrated in the middle third of Asia, led of course by mighty India. Half-hour time zones are also used in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iran. Nepal is one of two real oddities, 15 minutes ahead of India on GMT +5¾, and even that is a reluctant concession to the modern world, made only in 1986 when the shift of a few minutes from Kathmandu Mean Time was made.
The other territory marching to its own beat is the tiny Chatham Islands, another Australasian refuge for hipster ecotourists, home to 600 people and 600 km off New Zealand into the vast deep of the far South Pacific. Chathams Standard Time is 45 minutes ahead of Auckland, GMT +12¾ and a truly improbable GMT +13¾ in Summer.
The offset of more than twelve hours is because the islanders wish to remain on the same day as the rest of New Zealand, so the International Date Line bends to accommodate them. The IDL is responsible for the world’s most extreme time offset, GMT +14 on Kiritimati Island (that’s pronounced ‘Christmas’, in case you were wondering). Kiritimati is one of three thinly inhabited island groups that make up the nation of Kiribati, each separated from the other by over a thousand miles of Pacific emptiness. Until 1995, Kiribati was the only country in the world which lived permanently on two different dates. When it was noon on Tuesday in Kiritimati, it was already 10 a.m. on Wednesday in the capital, Tarawa. A subsistence economy and limited telecommunications until recently meant there was little incentive to change. Eventually, the communications revolution reached the Central Pacific and the opportunity to have the world’s first sunrise of the third millennium was too tempting to resist.
Samoa is another country that recently swapped across the IDL, fed up with having a different weekend from their huge diaspora and main economic partners in Australia and New Zealand. 30 December 2011 was the day that never existed for Samoans as the country jumped from straight from Thursday to Saturday in hopping over the dateline to GMT +13. They are exactly one day ahead of their near neighbours in American Samoa, whose links are more to Hawai’i and California.
But back to those half-hour offsets, because North Korea is not the first country to adopt one in recent years as a mark of political distinction. In 2007, Venezuela moved back half an hour to GMT -4½, within four minutes of Caracas Mean Time, for daylight saving reasons. This was a return to the status quo ante, for that was the country’s time zone until 1965, when it moved to GMT -4 in the name of international harmonisation. Hugo Chavez, the country’s then leftist leader claimed it provided a “fairer distribution of the sunrise”. It had the added benefit of ensuring the proudly anti-American President didn’t have to keep time with New York and Washington in the summer.
Keeping apart from New York and, more importantly, Toronto also might explain Newfoundland’s odd time zone of GMT -3½, 90 minutes ahead of the big population centres. Established in 1935, when Newfoundland was still a self-governing territory, it helps satisfy Newfies’ nostalgia for the days when they had not yet been incorporated into Canada.
Clock accuracy has improved by many orders of magnitude since the days of Harrison’s watches, and although GMT has been used throughout this article for familiarity’s sake, it was actually superseded by Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) in 1972. The two aren’t quite the same thing. GMT is calculated with reference to the Earth’s rotation, UTC with reference to a global network of atomic clocks accurate to around a billionth of a second per day. Advances continue – the US standards institute this year unveiled a strontium clock accurate to one second in 15 billion years – the lifetime of the universe so far. The clock is so sensitive to the time dilation effects caused by gravity that raising it just 2 cm further above the ground noticeably speeds it up.
Such accuracy has revealed that a day is not exactly 24 hours, as the Earth’s rotation is slowing down at the rate of about 1.7 milliseconds per hundred years. Day by day, those microseconds add up, and as a result GMT and UTC aren’t quite the same thing, being allowed to vary by up to a second before leap seconds are added. The rate of slowdown isn’t entirely predictable, but 29 leap seconds have been added to the UTC time since 1972 to keep it accurate with mean solar time. The problem will get worse over the coming centuries, with several leap seconds a year expected to be necessary by the year 2200.
Some geeks have even suggested moving to Unix time to avoid such problems, a suggestion particularly prevalent among the enthusiasts for a technological singularity. The Anno Domini for their New Age would be the zero second of the Unix epoch, 1 January 1970, although even that is a palimpsest of natural time, for the zero second was solar midnight at Greenwich’s New Year. The current time would be 1.4 billion or so. But for those of us not expecting to evolve into a super-intelligent race of cyborgs in the immediate future, a close correspondence between natural time and official time will always be useful.
And a century after we were forced on to Greenwich Time, perhaps a return to natural solar time might help some of Northern Ireland’s little local difficulties? The line of 7½ degrees West, exactly half an hour’s solar time difference from Greenwich, runs roughly from Strabane to Lisbellaw, and within a few miles of our second city at Newtown Cunningham. We could adopt GMT -½, entitled ‘DLMT’, short for Derry~Londonderry Mean Time, enshrining both names of the city forever without having to utter either of them in full. At 30 minutes behind Dublin and London and 90 minutes behind Paris and Berlin, it would be ideal for us. We’ve always been way behind the rest of Europe.
However it’s measured, time is a finite quantity for all of us. A human being today might reasonably expect to live for about 2.5 billion seconds. They run down remarkably quickly. Make the most of them.